As a little girl, Ericka Nicole Malone wrote about worlds — and people — without limitations. That’s why the award-winning screenwriter, producer, director, and playwright was drawn to the life of Mahalia Jackson, a legendary singer and integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. The result: Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story, which has won several nominations and awards, including an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Breakthrough Creative (Motion Picture). We spoke with Malone about Mahalia Jackson, being a mom, and why she’s determined to show the beauty of Black culture through her storytelling.
So let’s talk about the film. What drew you to Mahalia Jackson’s story?
Mahalia Jackson was such a huge figure for me. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the Black church, you’d see Mahalia Jackson on church fans, and at dinner you’d see a picture of Jesus in the middle and other side, you’d have Dr. King. And then there’d be Mahalia Jackson or Malcolm X, depending on where you stood. So she was just such a big figure in my life growing up.
Then a friend of mine, who’s a producer, said, “Hey, what do you think about writing about Mahalia Jackson?” And I really loved her; I did. I knew she was a great singer, and I knew that she was a big part of Black culture, but I didn’t know that she was one of the hidden figures in the Civil Rights Movement. Or, that she was such a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We make Dr. King and Mahalia so big in scope that we’re forgetting that they’re just Martin and Mahalia, and I wanted to humanize them in a real way. Show them eating at a dinner table, just talking, and laughing. I saw so many pictures of Mahalia and Dr. King. He was known for cracking jokes; he was a jokester. So you can imagine their conversations, and I just wanted to recreate my mind what that might have looked like. I had this amazing director, Denise Dowse, who recently passed away, unfortunately. The whole cast was just fantastic: So just having this whole tapestry of the story about this woman who encountered abuse from an aunt who believed in tough love, because Aunt Duke wanted her to be strong because her mother had just died. To be able to show that past and then show her mother’s dreams that she didn’t get fulfilled, and how she tried to fulfill it for her mother, resulted in a beautiful story that I’ve been completely honored to bring to life.
Now is that hard, though, growing up with Mahalia Jackson being such a prevalent figure everywhere, and then to tell her story in a whole new way?
I’ve been I’ve been writing since I was little, and writing is a place where I feel most safe. I like biopics because I’m a history buff, any. So to encapsulate what I envisioned these conversations may have looked like was actually very attractive to me.
The response to the film has been amazing.
I think the film has 28 nominations and so many wins. It’s been pretty fantastic. I think people like hearing stories about real people. But it’s really unbelievable — I have to absorb it in pieces and kind of moment by moment, just taking it all in stride. I just remember being a little girl and writing in the yard and writing these different poems and showing it to my mother and to see that now people around the world are able to see something I wrote and in such a beautiful way; it’s amazing.
I want to create worlds that I see in my mind but with the class and elegance that I don’t think we were afforded in our stories. That’s why with Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story, I wanted to show that class, elegance, beauty and how we really were. We were going through the most atrocious things; trauma and racial relations at that time, but we always found ways to show beauty, success, elegance, and such strength, too. So it was important for me to capitalize on that and show that side of it as well.
Let’s talk about your kids and how they play a role in your success.
I have three kids, and each one plays a very specific part. My 5-year-old, Justin, he keeps me a child. He doesn’t care about what I’m doing or what my day was like, it’s like, “Come play with me.” And I don’t want him to be 40 and saying, “Do you remember I used to ask you to come play with me and you wouldn’t?” So as much as possible, I play with him. My daughter, she is always such cheerleader. “You can do it, Mommy!” Even as a little girl she was like that. And my son was the one I would be doing play rehearsals and putting his carrier on stage. He would just be watching and laughing. My kids are my biggest supporters, and they just are all part of the whole thing. They’re just amazing.
But we really have the same issues. We have mom guilt, and if you have more than one child, you’re thinking, “Am I doing for this child more than the other?” So you’re trying to be this measuring stick of supermom to each child, and it’s not easy. I always think about when I’m 90 years old, sitting there, thinking of what I didn’t do. I want to make sure I still do everything that’s inside me to do, even though I am a mom. My daughter just turned
23 in January, but she talks about how seeing me go after my dreams was such an inspiration to not give up on hers. So in essence, you’re guiding your kids by going and doing all these amazing things.
I definitely agree. I don’t believe in sacrificing yourself for the sake of your kids. I think it really sends a bad message. Because if you stop your career when you don’t want to, well, what’s the point? Sure, your road might be a bit bumpy, or you have to take some detours, but you’re showing your kids, “Hey, I had a dream, and I’m going for it.” That’s inspirational.
I think adversity is the best teacher. Not often, but I’ve even allowed my kids to see me cry. I’ll tell them, “It’s just hard. I’m just tired today.” And the kids see that Mommy is trying her best. And as they get older, though, your kids end up being your friends. Of course, my generation, my mom said, “I’m not your friend. I want you to know, upfront, I’m not your friend.” But my mom was an amazing mom — she was a feminist and she wanted me to be a strong woman. She really shaped me into who I am today.
I was on your Instagram and I saw a quote that I absolutely loved. It said, “I knew I loved creating films when my vision surpassed what my eyes could see. But I wanted to create stories and worlds that had no barriers or limits the world I saw in my mind.” I mean, girl, that’s amazing.
My mom and my dad really tried hard for us to live the American dream, whatever that was in the 70s. So they moved us to this predominantly white neighborhood and my dad was working at General Electric. My mother was a part time nurse. We were in this really nice house. But it was like struggle within what looked like the American dream.
I remember I was on my bike with my friends who were white. And they would talk about the future like there was no limits. They’d say, “I’m gonna do this or that.” But then you get around other people in your family or just in life and you’d be told what you can’t do Because you’re Black and how the world sees you and I just was like, “If my friend Sally is living like this, how come I can’t live like that?” Or if she’s dreaming and there are no gates around her dreams, why do I have gates?
So writing was a way, especially not having a lot of money, where I could create a whole world and I can make my characters as rich or as successful or as proud or whatever — and there were no limits. No one can tell me I can’t do it. I can do anything I want because I can create the story. A lot of times, my story comes to life and so I’ve come to life because there are parts of me in the story. I can dream and thrive in that world.