This story about Aunjanue Ellis and “The Clark Sisters” first appeared in the Limited Series & Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Aunjanue Ellis really wanted to get the voice right, but she just couldn’t do it. In the Lifetime movie “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel,” she was playing Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, a gifted choral director and gospel musician who led her five daughters to Grammy-winning success. But try as she might, Ellis was never happy in her attempts to capture Clark’s distinctive raspy voice.
“I wanted to re-create that sound,” she said. “I would scream into a pillow, or go in the closet and scream in the closet before the director called action. I tried to injure my voice, and there are times in the movie where I do sound like her — but not as much as I wanted to.”
But Ellis, who was nominated for an Emmy last year for “When They See Us” and has also appeared in “The Book of Negroes,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “The Help,” did everything else she could to honor the memory of Clark, who died in 1994.
“It was incredibly important to be as close to her as I could be,” she said. “It was my raison d’être. And even if I couldn’t get her voice, I could capture the way she approached language. Most of us regular people go off in tangents, we put questions at the end of sentences to make ourselves acceptable to people we’re talking to. Mattie had no interest in that. She always spoke with authority, because she was so certain of why God put her on this earth.”
Her mission, Clark was convinced, was to change the face of gospel music with her daughters, and also to change the culture in the Church of God in Christ, a patriarchal Pentecostal denomination that discouraged any kind of public performance or quest for personal recognition. Her certainty that she was doing the work she was meant to do, Ellis admitted, made Clark tough and demanding.
“She’s not an easy person to like, but that was what was so fun about playing her,” she said. “I leaned into that, I didn’t hide from it. I went headlong into all those things that made people uncomfortable when Dr. Mattie Clark came into a room, because that’s who she was. If you have the kind of vision she did, you are not going to be an easy person.”
As a huge fan of Clark and her daughters before making the movie — “I was obsessed with the Clark Sisters, I was a stalker of the Clark Sisters,” she said — Ellis also worked to make sure the script gave its subjects the proper respect. “A lot of times, stories that are told about women who are performers or public figures kind of devolve into sensationalism,” she said. “I wanted to give the Clark Sisters the same kind of treatment that (Wolfgang) Amadeus (Mozart) got in the movie about him, where you dramatize his genius.”
While shooting the movie, she said, she and director Christine Swanson — one of many Black women who oversaw the production — frequently worked on the script until 3 or 4 a.m. “to get it to the place where it honored the Clark Sisters properly.”
The result became Lifetime’s top-rated movie in four years, which didn’t surprise Ellis. “It came out on Easter weekend, and it was sort of the beginning of our national lockdown,” she said. “Even now, people are grappling with alienation and isolation from their families, from their communities, from who they imagined themselves to be two months ago.
“The Clark Sisters, in their brilliance, speak to those issues of personal trauma that come from feeling isolated or alienated, that come from being the person who’s different. They speak to that in their music in a way that is different from anybody in gospel music — and they speak to the alienation that is particular to Black women in a way that is probably only matched by Nina Simone. And since we’re all feeling alienated, to hear them sing songs like that brought the promise of healing.”
To read more of the Limited Series & Movies issue, click here.