We speak to Emmy Award-winning actress Aunjanue Ellis about her powerful new role


In the movie, The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, their mother, legendary choir director Doctor Mattie Moss Clark is a force to be reckoned with.

She wakes her daughters up in the early morning to learn a new harmony, she throws a shoe against the wall during a choir practise, and an offending soprano chewing gum feels the brunt of her temper as she shouts: "Spit that gum out."

Even, as a viewer, she'll leave you shaking in your boots. Doctor Moss Clark is not the one to mess with.

The prolific and dynamic world-renowned music director is embodied by Aunjanue Ellis best known for her roles in When They See Us, QuanticoIf Beale Street Could Talk and Ray.

Doctor Mattie, who is probably unknown to most, could be dubbed the original momager. Under the tutelage of their mother Jacky Clark Chisholm, Denise Clark Bradford, Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark-Terrell, Dorinda Clark-Cole, and Karen Clark Sheard became the Clark Sisters, the highest-selling female gospel group in history.

And now for the first time, their story is being told in the Lifetime movie set to air on Sunday, 17 May at 19:20 on DStv channel 131.

For Aunjanue, who has always been a fan of the group, she wanted to be part of something that shows them as significant figures in American music, she tells us during a telephone interview.

"I've been a student of their work for a long time. And so, for me, it was an opportunity to go to work every day and celebrate the joy that they brought me every day for years."

To prepare to play the role of the matriarch, the Emmy Award-winning actress watched every video she could find and spoke to as many people as she could who attended her music workshops.


What surprised her while she was doing her research was the level of persecution she experienced in the church.

"I didn't understand the degree of what she experienced because she was so maligned by the men in the church for her choices for being a visionary, the visionary that she was. So, I came to understand that by talking to her daughters. They told me just the level of the weight that she felt because of how the men treated her of the church."

Speaking about the heartbreaking scene in the movie Aunjanue reveals that it wasn't originally like that.

Aunjanue Ellis stars as Mattie in The Clark Sister

(A VISIONARY: Aunjanue as Mattie. Photo: Lifetime)

"I insisted that we give a voice to what Mattie felt. No one knows really what happened in that room. We know that they told us she couldn't perform with her daughters anymore. And we don't know what she said.

"We don't know what words came out of her mouth. I felt that this was an opportunity to give a voice for how she felt and how devastating that was for her and her family. It was important to hear Doctor Mattie articulate that pain."

Doctor Mattie is a complex character; sometimes you're on the character's side, other times not so much.

This is an affirmation for Aunjanue that she succeeded in what she tried to achieve with the character.


"That reaction makes me feel pretty good. I feel like I did something right. I like the idea of playing characters where the viewer does not know how to feel about them. And, I think that's how we exist and how we are with our family members.

"You know that there are days when we love our loved ones to death, and then there are days when we don't want to deal with them because they're driving you crazy. And I think that's honest."

She adds: "I think what pissed her off is mediocrity, is knowing someone and being in the presence of someone who is capable of greatness and watching them settle for something less than great. I think she had no patience for that. That drove her crazy. From everything that I've heard about her, that's what drove her crazy.

"I love the idea that someone could look at this and go like, 'I don't know how I feel about Doctor Mattie'. I love that because I think that's an honest portrayal of how human beings are."

Aunjanue Ellis stars as Mattie in The Clark Sister

(AN HONEST PORTRAYAL: Aunjanue and Christina Bell as Twinkie. Photo: Lifetime)

Aunjanue hopes that from the movie, people will realise how significant the Clark Sisters are to American music.

"We talk about black women as performers. But we don't talk about black women as makers, who don't talk about the brain matter it takes for us to do what we do. And the Clark Sisters are no better example for that.

"Twinkie Clarke was writing their music, she composed their music, she arranged their music, she was writing the lyrics to their songs. You know, she was speaking to the alienation of being a black woman in the church, being a black woman, period, with the song, Is My Living in Vain. She was speaking to that in her 20s.

"I want people to go and listen to their music and download it. I want some money in these women's pockets. I want that for the Clark Sisters."


The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel premieres Sunday, 17 May at 19:20 on Lifetime (DStv 131)

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