The Clark Sisters and the Legacies of Black Church Women

Updated: Apr 16

Photo Credit: Lifetime Network

I went into Lifetime’s record breaking biopic, The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, expecting…biopic things. To be fair, we’ve been overrun by them and most leave us wanting. Quickly, all doubts dissipated and I knew this would exceed every expectation.

Never again do I want to hear that plus size Black women aren’t marketable in films. Raven Goodwin, Christina Bell and Angela Birchett all proved they deserve more opportunities in lead roles. After being introduced to her voice last year, I’m glad so many more now know who Sheléa Frazier is. And I am now officially a member of the #PutKikiSheardInAllTheMoviesHive. But it was Aunjanue Ellis, in her iconic role as Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, who captured our hearts. She embodied so many of our mothers and grandmothers– humanizing them in a culture that does the opposite. Her performance was a gift.

Beyond stellar acting and music, The Clark Sisters resonated because it was real. Written by Camille Tucker and directed by Christine Swanson, this is a story about Black women of faith from Black women of faith. Most of our stories have not been written by us. Tyler Perry built an empire telling Black church women’s stories, writing them all himself. The Kendrick brothers, White men, have done the same with War Room and Overcomer. And Craig Wright, another White man, is the creator and lead writer of OWN’s Greenleaf. While they have success and cult like followings, they still write representations of who they think we are. When Black women tell of our own faith journeys, we do for each other things nobody else can.

Something was stirred in me watching The Clark Sisters. I’d been exposed and wasn’t expecting it. Black women everywhere, whose lives had been steeped in the culture of the Black church, felt the same.

Finally, we were seen.

In My Mother’s House, There’s Still God

The hardest relationship many Black women will navigate is the one with their mothers. They have this vision of the daughters they want us to be; they see our potential and nurture it. That vision is often incongruent with the women we’re becoming because they don’t get to dictate how the potential they’ve nurtured manifests. And it gets hard. We try to live into whatever makes them happy, to our own detriment. It’s why there was a collective gasp when Twinkie said she didn’t know the difference between pleasing God and pleasing Dr. Mattie. We know that pain and that confusion. We know the crippling fear of disappointing Mama while the need to be your own person calls you higher. And that doesn’t mean our mothers aren’t right about our gifts, potential and capacities. It simply means we need to find out for ourselves.

But any loving mother would try to shield us from that pain, even if they don’t see that the shield is not protection. It’s why I can’t rock with social media summations of Dr. Mattie as abusive, tyrannical or manipulative. Be clear: there are abusive mothers. Yet, I fear what it means when we have tools to identify abuse and trauma but wield them without care. Reflecting on Dr. Mattie critiques, gender studies professor/acclaimed Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper said, “that demand for excellence, that refusal to let all the men who wanted to shut her up do so, that continual affirmation of her daughters’ gifts in a world that routinely overlooks Black girl genius, matters greatly.” For daughters with mothers like Dr. Mattie, every moment in our relationships may not be loving because people, even our mothers, are human. But the totality of our relationship is rooted in love. Sometimes, that love is hard and that hardness is to be expected in a world that does not give Black women soft places to land.

And the best mothers reckon with their hard places. Dr. Mattie’s conversation with Jacky was proof. Estranged from two of her daughters, Dr. Mattie reflected on what she’d done wrong and how she could have been better. When Jacky told her mother to let her sisters go, Dr. Mattie refused. “I’m their mother,” she said. And I believe, until she left here, she wrestled with it and worked in her heart to repair the breach. Because, it seems that as difficult as the mother-daughter relationship is for daughters to navigate, it’s just as hard for our mothers too.

Men We Reaped

It would be impossible to do the story of the Clark Sisters justice and ignore misogyny within the Black church. Most knew how the COGIC Council of Bishops censured Dr. Mattie for performing with her daughters at the 1983 Grammys. Yet, The Clark Sisters provides a sobering look into Black women’s experiences with Black church men. As a result, many now clamor to host “much needed conversations” about sexism. What about watching a story, written and directed by Black women, about Black women’s experiences leads Black men to believe we need them to moderate discussions about it–especially when Black clergywomen and womanist theologians have been writing, preaching, talking and teaching about this for decades.

Mama often joked that the worst thing I could do with my heart is give it to a preacher. She believed them to be insecure and said they stifle the growth of any free Black woman. With pastors’ wives as close friends, she had a premium seat to their pain and didn’t want that for me. I joked that my daddy wasn’t a preacher but was just as bad. She concurred and widened that net to include church musicians, deacons, trustees and pretty much any Black man who ever went to church.

But we don’t always listen to our mothers, do we? Like Twinkie, despite our best efforts and our mothers’ prayers, we often love and marry men like our fathers. Men who can ascend even higher if they keep us in our place. A life with these men, we were told, is the pinnacle of success. It doesn’t get much better than the view from the second row, setting the tone for and being the envy of most women. And the topic of conversation, too. Because we wonder what she had to give up in order to take that seat. We wonder what life is like in that house once the door closes. Sometimes, we know. And while it may not be as violent as others, things were taken from her. Things she’ll never get back as long as she’s with him. Many made peace with that while secretly urging many of us not to.

Won’t Let My Freedom Rot In Hell

Perhaps the most formidable figure in the biopic is Denise Clark-Bradford. For those who’d heard of her prior to the biopic, her myth was that of legends. Following the biopic, some chose sides against her. Others felt the biopic portrayed her poorly. I thought it told the story of a woman decades before her time. Who was unwilling to be held captive by rigidity and doctrine. Who just wanted a normal childhood and adolescence. The Clark Sisters told the story of a woman who wanted to be human. I say “before her time” as if that time has passed. Sadly, the Dorindas of the church/world still find us hard to love.

There are some whose relationships with their mothers is different than that of their siblings. They were mothered by women who seemed to have favorites or did not know how to fully love their children. So when Denise explained why she didn’t have anything left for her mother, the oldest Clark sister told a hard truth on behalf of many. It’s one mothers like Dr. Mattie initially refuse to hear. Black women’s autonomy has always been a threat to institutions that do not value us. But, to our mothers, it’s a slap in the face–a rejection of them and every sacrifice they’ve made. In our quest to breathe unrestricted air, we are deeply misunderstood and lose so much as a result.

Nobody Wins When The Family Feuds

For as amazing as The Clark Sisters is, it is also hard. There is no resolution or happy ending. Denise’s public statements, interviews and lack of producer credit alongside her sisters make it clear tension remains. And onscreen moments reveal it, too. Despite being married, Denise is the only sister whose love life wasn’t depicted. At home, Dr. Mattie only calls to reconcile with Twinkie. In the hospital, she only asks if Twinkie is coming. And then, there’s the funeral scene. Conversations continue about what Denise actually did or didn’t do. The funeral program and a video of Denise speaking at the service are making social media rounds. Yet, the recreation of the homegoing didn’t bother me as much as the fact Denise was excluded from having a tender flashback on her relationship with her mother, as her sisters had.

But it is the final scene that is most heartbreaking. There is no shot of all the sisters together. No collage of pictures from happier times. It is only Jackie, Dorinda and Karen–the three who never separated their devotion to God from their devotion to their mother. It leaves the Twinkies of the church/world beloved but still in the shadows of the ones who did everything “right”. And it leaves the Denises of the church/world nowhere to be found, their stories told by the ones who are assumed to be telling the truth. It is a prophetic and painful thing when art imitates life.

The Clark Sisters is one of the most important cultural productions of our time. Womanist work, it deserves to be discussed alongside Lemonade, Daughters of the Dust and other films that reflect the scope of Black women’s journeys of love, loss, grief and triumph. Yet, there is a question before us. Now that wounds and tender places have been exposed and hiding them is no longer an option, what do we do? What do we do when the weight of pain and shame still has us checking into psychiatric hospitals? What do we do when the inability to hear God’s voice as clearly as we need to still has us driving onto bridges ready to jump? What do we do when we want better relationships with the people we love but religious doctrine and dogma make it impossible? What do we with the truth that needed to be told?

We commit to theologies that allow us to flourish in the light of God’s sun. We seek the forgiveness of loved ones we have harmed. We resolve to heal in ways that lead to grace instead of bitterness. We create art that sets people free. We tell more truth.

And we keep telling it–in the hopes that, one day, the truth is all there is.