Man with Cape ties bringing gospel singer's story to film

Friday, July 1, 2011
Mahalia Jackson, 59, sings an African-American spiritual at the imperial palace April 23, 1971 before the royal family to celebrate Emperor Hirohito's 70th birthday on April 29, 1971. Miss Jackson, visiting Tokyo for the first time, was the first American singer ever to sing at such an Imperial birthday party in the palace. (AP Photo)

Mahalia Jackson is known as the "Queen of Gospel," and her music is treasured by generations. Her life saw struggle and success, from growing up in poverty in New Orleans and fighting for black equality, to multiple Grammy Awards, gold records and historic performances the world over.

Jackson's life and legacy will soon be portrayed on film, and a former Cape Girardeau resident is playing a big part in making it happen.

Adrian Taylor, who went to college in Cape Girardeau and still has family in Southeast Missouri, is the executive producer for the film "Mahalia!" and handles the financing and distribution aspects. Taylor lives in Las Vegas.

The film will be primarily shot in New Orleans and Chicago, in keeping with Jackson's life.

Jackson was the first gospel performer to sing at Carnegie Hall. She sang "How I Got Over" and "I've Been 'Buked, I've Been Scorned" at the civil rights march on Washington in 1963, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. At King's funeral, she performed what is considered her signature song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

Jackson used her success to provide for others. She established the Mahalia Jackson Scholarship Foundation, among other things. Her legacy as one of the greatest gospel singers has been cemented by the artists who cite her as an idol, mentor and influence.

The film is based on the book "Got To Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel" by Jules Schwerin. The screenplay was written by Jim Evering.

Taylor has a law degree but has always been interested in the entertainment industry. He came to Cape Girardeau in June 1979 and graduated from Southeast Missouri State University in 1983. He worked at KFVS12 as a cameraman and then became the first black reporter for the station. He also worked on air at KGMO. His son, the Rev. Adrian Taylor Jr., is pastor at Lighthouse Breakthrough International Ministries in Cape Girardeau.

The older Taylor has spent his career representing artists and companies in film and television.

"I was always interested in entertainment," Taylor said. "I started with music contracts and managing artists, [and] I turned down positions in law."

This will be Taylor's first foray into executive producing. He made his way into the business through investment banking. He worked with a Merrill Lynch executive who had experience as a film executive at Columbia and Orion Pictures, he said.

Taylor said the movie should be finished in 2012. The star factor is already set, with Fantasia Barrino in the title role. Barrino won "American Idol" in season three and won a 2010 Grammy Award for best female R&B vocal performance for "Bittersweet."

Portraying a person through her entire life can be tough for any actor, especially one who sings. Barriono will sing six songs from when Mahalia was young," Taylor said. "When she's playing a 16-year-old, those songs are going to be live. The other songs, when [Jackson is] older, she's going to lip-sync rerecorded masters."

Taylor said that in addition to securing Barrino to play the lead part, they are also in talks with several recognizable actors to play other roles, including Diahann Carroll ("Dynasty") and Michael Clark Duncan ("The Green Mile").

With Jackson's music rooted in gospels, spirituals and hymns, Taylor and his associates decided to pursue a marketing plan that reaches out to a Christian audience, though producers feel that her story can and will appeal to many more.

"We're using the same business model for marketing as was used with 'The Passion of the Christ,'" Taylor said.

He said there will be special screenings and promotions for church involvement.

Above all, Taylor said, he wants the movie to stay true to Jackson's life and provide people with a look at an icon of American music. He said he feels confident the crew can create an accurate portrayal.

"They keep rewriting the script until they get it exactly where they want it," Taylor said. "What happens is since you've got Fantasia, they say, 'We're going to write this script in a way that's it's still going to keep the main story, but she's going to give a good performance,' and the directors know how to do that through the process of making the film."

Taylor said that the director, Euzhan Palcy, is shooting another film right now and won't be available to start shooting "Mahalia!" until October. Taylor said the plan is to begin production in October with a release in late 2012. The movie has already been invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

"They've offered for us to do a screening there," Taylor said. "We can either enter it as competition, or we can have it in the noncompetition and premiere it, if it's edited. It's got to be ready by April 6 for next year's Cannes."

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