From music icon to serious actress

Mary J. Blige's gift in baring her soul during her performances led to a Golden Globe nomination

Mary J. Blige received the Breakthrough Performance Award at the 29th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival last Tuesday in California, for her role in Netflix drama Mudbound.
Mary J. Blige received the Breakthrough Performance Award at the 29th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival last Tuesday in California, for her role in Netflix drama Mudbound.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • You know Mary J. Blige can sing and dance. But it may surprise some that she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes for her role in Netflix drama Mudbound.

So how did Blige, 46, transition from music icon to serious actress? If you take a look at her background, you would not be so perplexed.

Since her 1992 hit debut album, What's The 411?, seven more of Blige's records have reached multi-platinum status.

She has won nine Grammys and been nominated for 22 others. Over the course of her more than 25-year career, she has sold more than 50 million albums.

But the superstar has not had it easy. A New York native, she lived in housing projects while growing up and dropped out of high school.

She was no stranger to alcohol and drug abuse, both witnessing and struggling with these herself.

Blige is perhaps best known for her sophomore work, My Life, inspired by struggles with clinical depression, substance abuse and an abusive relationship.

Rolling Stone included the 1994 album in its list of the 100 Best Albums Of The 1990s because of how she showcased a "rare gift for pouring her heart into a recording, to make her soul come through the speakers".

Now, Blige has also allowed her soul to come through film. In an interview with Variety, she said her interest in acting dates back to performing in plays when she was seven. Her first on-screen performance was in 2001 independent film Prison Song.

It was followed by roles that used her musical talents. She starred in Tyler Perry's 2009 musical comedy-drama I Can Do Bad All By Myself, the 2012 musical Rock Of Ages and 2013's Black Nativity.

Mudbound marks not only a transition for Blige - but yet another example of why her fans love her in the first place. The drama is set in the American South in the 1940s, in a society dominated by segregation laws. It follows two families - one white, one black.

She portrays Florence Jackson, the mother of a World War II war hero who returns to his country to the same prejudices he left behind.

Among an ensemble cast of more seasoned actors including Carey Mulligan and Jason Mitchell, Blige fits right in - so well that some audiences could not believe it was her.

She "disappears so thoroughly into her regal, inscrutable character that viewers may not recognise her until the final credits roll", Washington Post chief movie critic Ann Hornaday noted.

Her raw, emotional performance is reminiscent of the music that catapulted her to stardom - just without the blonde hair, make-up diminishing a tear-shaped scar on her face and freshly manicured nails.

Blige is no longer just vocally raw but visually too. That visual pain is evident in Mudbound, even when her eyes are covered with sunglasses at the film's most emotionally pivotal points.

Though her narration during a scene in which her character refuses to watch her son head off to war is gut-wrenching, it is sometimes what Florence does not say that is most moving.

Director Dee Rees said she knew from the start she wanted Blige for the role. In an interview with HuffPost, she added that she "really wanted someone unexpected", but that she knew what Blige was capable of.

"With Mary's music, if you've been to her concerts, it's literally like a therapy session for thousands of people," she said. "She's not just performing; she's living it.

"Every verse, she's reliving the heartbreak or she's reliving the joy, and you feel it. I needed a character that can make people feel, and I knew she could bring it."

Blige was inspired immediately. "When I read the script, I was moved because it showed at the end of the day, when it all gets down to it, love has no colour," she told Variety, noting the film's themes speak to "today's times" too.

She added that being "stripped down to the bare necessities" as Florence helped her own self-esteem and self-love. She said the performance was therapeutic to the pain she experienced in her ongoing divorce from her husband Martin "Kendu" Isaacs.

"I just had all the heaviness of not feeling right, not feeling good," she said. "I gave it to Florence."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2018, with the headline 'From music icon to serious actress'. Subscribe