How Lifetime’s Clark Sisters Biopic Forged Ahead Amid Coronavirus: ‘The Buzz Has Been Very Rewarding’

God’s timing is perfect,” Dr. Holly Carter says of the 15-year journey that finally brought her passion project to fruition, The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel. Even when the biopic’s entire publicity program, pre-broadcast premiere and press tour were canceled just three weeks shy of its Lifetime TV premiere owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We had a robust plan prepared, from church screenings across the country to press, television and performance opportunities,” recalls an upbeat Carter, who helms Los Angeles-based Relevé Entertainment. “Then all of a sudden, one by one, everything just cancel ed. So we shifted to a robust, aggressive digital and social media blitz.”

The blitz includes a virtual countdown to the evening of the biopic’s premiere, hosted by gospel stars Erica Campbell on Instagram Live and Kirk Franklin on Facebook Live. Also on Facebook Live, Hollywood producer/author Devon Franklin will emcee a virtual red carpet, while artist Michelle Williams will host an IG Live from the Lifetime platform. In the run-up to Saturday’s premiere, IG Live segments have featured the film’s music director and fellow gospel star Donald Lawrence as well as the five Clark Sisters, in tandem with the actresses who portrayed them. On April 7th, Mary J. Blige,  one of the film’s executive producers alongside Carter, appeared on Good Morning America to further spread the word.

“So far,” says Carter, “the buzz has been very rewarding.”

In addition to Carter and Blige, The Clark Sisters team of executive producers includes Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott. Shot in Toronto, the film is based on the true story of the trailblazing Clark Sisters, who are credited with bringing gospel to the mainstream with the 1983 gospel/R&B/dance crossover hit “You Brought the Sunshine (Into My Life).” The daughters of noted gospel choral director Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, the quintet won three Grammy Awards and became the highest-selling female gospel group. However, on the road to those achievements, the Detroit natives experienced abuse, betrayal, sibling rivalries and push-back from the gospel community for being too secular.

The cast features Aunjanue Ellis (Mattie Moss Clark), Christina Bell (Twinkie), Kierra Sheard (Karen), Sheléa Frazier (Dorinda), Raven Goodwin (Denise) and Angela Birchett (Jacky). In an interesting twist, Kierra — a gospel recording artist in her own right — is playing her own mother Karen Clark Sheard.

“When I met the Clark Sisters as a young girl, I knew I wanted to make their life story into a movie,” says Carter. Raised in the church too, she shopped the project to other outlets before taking it to Lifetime. Carter’s prior television credits include the Oxygen franchise Preachers (of L.A., Detroit, Atlanta).

Frustrated and discouraged at times by how long the process was taking, Carter kept pushing. Fast-forwarding to now, she’s since realized two things. As Carter explains, “First, it wasn’t supposed to happen until Kierra was old enough to play her mother. And two, I had to meet my partner Shakim Compere, who brought essential elements like Queen Latifah, Mary and Missy to seal the deal. At the end of the day, I realized it was going to happen when it was supposed to. A vision whose time has come is most powerful.”

Below, Carter explains what attracted the film’s superstar producers, why Easter weekend was the perfect premiere time and more.

What else makes the Clark Sisters’ story compelling?

It’s a universal story. The story of the Clark Sisters is very much a Jackson Five story, very much Dream Girls and Sparkle. It just happens to have redemptive through-lines. It’s also why we’ve been engaging not just gospel but secular consumers in our blitz because the Clark Sisters have a very robust secular fan base. We’re also working on an inspired-by soundtrack with Donald Lawrence, who did all the music for the movie. His genius has been involved from day one of the shoot.

With this also being Easter weekend, how does the film help people find faith?

There is scripture (Romans 8:22) that says, “The whole earth waits and is in earnest anticipation for the revealing of the sons of God.” It means right now in this frightening and uncertain time of this deadly pandemic, people are waiting for hope, for answers, for direction. As people of faith, our responsibility is to rise up with our voices of inspiration and our sound of hope that will guide people through to the other side of this. The need for gospel and Christian music has never been so great.

What drew Queen Latifah, Elliott and Blige to the project?

For one thing, the Clark Sisters are one of their favorite groups. At the Essence Festival last year, Mary told Karen Clark Sheard, “You don’t know that your music saved my life.” Queen played the sisters’ music on-set while warming up each day for her former talk show. And Missy is a friend of the family. The ladies played a key role from initial development and looking at cuts to deciding on artwork and marketing strategies.

What more do you hope viewers take away from the film?

That Mattie Moss Clark fought for her girls and for family. One of the things she always said to them was whatever you do, stay together. So I want this film to promote family. And I want to promote in mothers that when you see your child has a gift, stir that thing up, cultivate it and help your child rise to the occasion.

How challenging does it continue to be for black producers pitching projects in Hollywood?

Hollywood is a competitive landscape given the changing of the guard in platforms from linear to streaming. And now with aggressive digital players, the game heightens. It remains an uphill journey for black producers, specifically in terms of female and Christian. However, as [black] executive producers strive to produce entertaining, thought-provoking and great solid family and faith-based content, the studio and network doors will have no choice but to remain receptive to us.