Throughout more than 20 years in the music industry, Mary J. Blige has blessed fans with dozens of jams. She is undoubtedly recognized as a powerhouse in the business, earning a total of 101 music-related accolades, including eight platinum albums, nine Grammys, 10 Billboard Awards, and four American Music Awards. While she has cleaned up in terms of music honors, she has been making a move to translate that success to another medium: cinema.
Since 1998, Blige has been carefully climbing the Hollywood totem pole, taking a handful of guest appearances on TV series and supporting roles in small picture films. Her most recent role as Florence Jackson in the 2017 Sundance hit, Mudbound, is what has thrust her under the spotlight as the one to watch.
Blige nabbed two nominations at the 2018 Oscars for her contributions on the film – Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for “Mighty River” – making her the first performer to be simultaneously recognized for a song and acting role in 10 years. Unfortunately, Blige walked away empty-handed on March 4. Nevertheless, accomplishing the biggest hurdle of landing two nominations confirms that she’s doing something right. She may not have the formula perfected, but Blige’s cinematic journey should be the blueprint for other hip-hop/R&B artists looking to crossover over into Hollywood.
The artist’s Hollywood takeover has been a long time in the making. Blige’s debut acting gig came in 1998 as a guest appearance on Jamie Foxx’s self-titled comedy series. Her role as a preacher’s daughter, however, was less about her testing out her acting chops as it was fulfilling the cliché cameo for ‘90s artists. Even so, that role served as a stepping stone for her soon-to-be side hustle.
The singer’s desire to step outside of her mega-stardom as Mary J. Blige and into the shoes of her characters assisted her on the road to the Oscars. “Singers are given roles so easily because they’re singers and I didn’t want that to be why I got roles anymore,” Blige told IndieWire in 2017. “I want to work hard and just kind of lose myself in it.” Ultimately, her willingness to essentially be somebody else landed her roles in a series of versatile productions, including 2007’s Entourage, Rock of Ages, and Tyler Perry’s $51 million blockbuster, I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
Versatility is Blige’s friend. How else could she go from playing a hairstylist on How To Get Away with Murder to the wicked witch in NBC’s The Wiz Live? While each of her roles may have been costumes, she has used her experience both as a woman and a musician to add depth to her characters. In regards to Mudbound, the film’s director, Dee Rees admitted that she consciously worked to strip Blige of her stage persona (“I was in my full Mary J. Blige: blonde wig and nails out to here, and Dee was just like ‘No!’” Blige recalled to Variety), but Blige drew a lot of her on-screen emotion from past hardships. “To get into character for Florence, what I did was remembered my childhood,” she told Entertainment Weekly back in January. “I remembered going down South every summer and seeing my grandparents have their own farms and I used a lot of my own personal life, hard times and challenges to put into Florence.”
As women, there will be plenty of experiences to draw inspiration from, but MJB’s secret weapon is her ability to reach into the depths of her soul with a handful of vocal arrangements and touch millions of listeners. As Rees put it: “With Mary’s music, if you’ve been to her concerts, it’s literally like a therapy session for thousands of people. 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.” That sort of transparency is exactly what makes truthful storytellers, no matter the form of expression. To break down relationships, family baggage, and other hardships in her music (1995’s “Not Gon Cry, which also served as the soundtrack for Waiting to Exhale; 2017’s “U + Me [Love Lesson]”) prepped her from shedding layers to get to the bare emotions on screen.
— Mike Adam (@MikeAdamOnAir) March 5, 2018
Blige’s ability to succeed in two realms simultaneously is a rare feat compared to her musical counterparts. Take Queen Latifah, for example. Her career is undoubtedly one to admire, but she seemingly sacrificed one part of her artistry in order to build another. Her actress credits overwhelmingly trump her music. Latifah’s last studio album, Persona, dates back to 2009. That same year, she starred in two productions, followed by a whopping 26 in the years leading up to 2018. While Blige was taking small roles in Hollywood, she also flooded the market with albums and singles for major film soundtracks. Her soundtrack discography includes work for Bad Boys II, Death Race and Precious. Her single “The Living Proof,” which was featured on the soundtrack for The Help, was also included on her 2011 album, My Life II… The Journey Continues. Not to mention, four months after Mudbound premiered at the Sundance Festival, Blige dropped her thirteenth studio album, Strength of a Woman, which peaked at number three on the Billboard 200.
Both Hollywood and hip-hop are taking note of Blige’s recent Oscars success. Fellow How To Get Away With Murder star and Oscar winner, Viola Davis, Gabourey Sidibe, and Vivica A. Fox congratulated their colleague on social media following news of her nominations. Queen Latifah also sent her best wishes to the Queen of R&B Soul. “You have made history as the first person to be nominated for a performance and original song in the same year,” Queen Latifah wrote on Twitter. “I am filled with joy for you and I’m so proud and inspired by your talent, drive, and brilliance.”
There are more than 23 hip-hop/R&B artists who have crossed over into Hollywood, more than 10 of them being women (Jennifer Hudson, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, to name a few). All you need is just one role to propel you into the limelight, but it takes persistence, versatility, intense preparation, and depth to stay there. Janelle Monáe is on the brink of MJB’s success. She is gearing up to drop her studio album, Dirty Computer, and her starring roles in the two award-winning pictures, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, definitely highlight her intense emotion and skill set. And with a few more roles under her belt, she is capable of mimicking Blige’s journey.
As for Mary J. Blige, it is unlikely that she’ll leave her true love of music anytime soon, but her success because of Mudbound has opened several doors. As far as what’s next, the sky’s the limit. The actress is reaching for even bigger, heavier roles. Blige previously mentioned an interest in joining the Marvel franchise, possibly in the Wonder Woman franchise. “I love the heavy stuff, just because it’s a way of escaping all the heavy stuff of life,” Blige told IndieWire. “I would love to do more drama, because life and the world just keep happening.” Let’s hope her next role lands that Oscar.