It’s unfathomable that Mavis Staples didn’t win a Grammy Award till she was 71 years old. She’d been one of America’s most distinct voices for six decades before finally taking home the trophy in 2010.
And even then, the recognition came in a somewhat unexpected category: Best Americana Album for You Are Not Alone. Staples was best known for her gospel, soul, and R&B music through the decades, including many with her family group, The Staple Singers.
But when you think about it, Mavis Staples is Americana—certainly a big slice of it, of those things that make up our history, folklore, and cultural heritage. She helped redefine gospel music and bring it to the mainstream. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and was a powerful voice in the civil rights movement. She has performed for five sitting presidents—she sang at Kennedy’s inauguration and recently, at the White House for the Obamas. She interacts easily with people of all races and music of all genres. She is loved by all and, with a big heart of gold, loves all. She is an American treasure.
It’s about time somebody made a documentary about this remarkable woman.
Mavis!, which airs February 29 on HBO, is as deserving of the exclamation point as the woman herself. Director Jessica Edwards treats her subjects—Mavis and the music—with love, and is savvy enough to let both do most of the talking. There are the requisite appearances from experts and fellow musicians (including Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, and more), but Edwards knows from whence the magic comes.
Just let Mavis talk. And just let Mavis sing, that big and beautiful, rich and raspy voice, a voice that Raitt describes as “sensual but not salacious.” And keep the interruptions to a minimum.
Though a cinematic retrospective about Mavis Staples is certainly long overdue, one could also argue that the timing couldn’t be better, with issues of race and religion and rights—and often, a disturbing lack of reason—dominating much of our national conversation. Mavis Staples and her family were among the first to tell America that the lives of black men, women, and children matter, and she has been calling for peace and social justice for decades.
Her songs are just as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1963, when she and her family heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Mavis’s father, Pops Staples, introduced himself to King after the service. In that brief conversation, King convinced Staples to start writing “freedom songs,” which would soon become the soundtrack for the civil rights movement. (Listen to a couple of them here: “Freedom Highway” and “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”)
Now 76, Mavis notes how many of her family’s early concerts took part in the South during the ’60s and recalls how “white kids would try to run us off the road.” She doesn’t, however, discuss incidents where white police may have made their lives harder—like when the whole family was arrested in Memphis when falsely accused of beating a white gas station clerk.
While many people talk about race relations, Mavis Staples has always just done race relations. She has always seemed to be at ease with people of any color. Bob Dylan was so comfortable with Mavis, whom he met in 1963, that he even asked her to marry him—in a day when interracial marriages were positively scandalous. As Mavis tells the story here, she says she thought he was “cute,” but still said no; she wanted to focus on the music and the family.