Mary J. is in the spot tonight — well, technically, Sunday night.
But it’s not just because of the iconic songstress’s landmark contributions to the fusion of soul and hip-hop or her memeable dance moves. Mary J. Blige is nominated for best supporting actress at this weekend’s Golden Globes for her role in the Netflix drama “Mudbound.”
So how did Blige transition from worldwide music icon to serious, Golden Globe-nominated actress? If we take a look at her background, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Since her 1992 multiplatinum debut album “What’s the 411?,” seven more of Blige’s records have reached multiplatinum status. She has won nine Grammy Awards and been nominated for 22 others. Over the course of her more than 25-year career, she has sold over 50 million albums.
But the superstar hasn’t had it easy. A New York native born in the Bronx and raised in Yonkers, Blige lived in housing projects while growing up and dropped out of high school. She was no stranger to alcohol and drug abuse, both witnessing it and struggling with it herself.
Blige is perhaps best known for her sophomore work, “My Life,” which was inspired by struggles with clinical depression, substance abuse and an abusive relationship. Rolling Stone included the 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 as she moves from “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” to serious screen queen.
In an interview with Variety, Blige said her interest in acting dates back to performing in plays when she was 7 years old. Her first on-screen performance was the 2001 independent film, “Prison Song.” “I hope people don’t go digging it up,” Blige told Variety.
“Prison Song” 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.” Blige also produced a song, “The Living Proof,” for the 2012 critically acclaimed film “The Help,” which was the source of her first Golden Globe nomination — for best original song in a motion picture. Blige received her second song nomination this year for “Mighty River” from the “Mudbound” soundtrack.
“Mudbound” marks 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 Jim Crow segregation laws. The film follows two families — one white, one black — and how their lives intertwine on a farm just outside of a small Mississippi town. Blige portrays Florence Jackson, the mother of a World War II war hero who returns to his country to the same prejudices he left behind while overseas.
Among an ensemble cast of more seasoned actors including Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke and Jason Mitchell, Blige fits right in — so well that some audiences could not believe it was her. Blige “disappears so thoroughly into her regal, inscrutable character that viewers may not recognize her until the final credits roll,” Washington Post chief movie critic Ann Hornaday noted in her four-star review of the film.
Blige’s raw, emotional performance in the film is reminiscent of the music that catapulted her to stardom — just without the blonde hair, makeup diminishing the tear-shaped scar on her face and freshly manicured nails. Blige is no longer just vocally and lyrically raw, but visually, too.
That visual pain is evident in “Mudbound,” even when Blige’s eyes are covered with sunglasses at the film’s most emotionally pivotal points. Though Blige’s narration during a scene in which her character refuses to watch her son head off to war is gut-wrenching to hear, it’s sometimes what Florence doesn’t 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, Rees said 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,” Rees 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 color,” Blige told Variety, noting the film’s themes speak to “today’s times,” too.
Blige also told Variety 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 husband Martin “Kendu” Isaacs.
“I just had all the heaviness of not feeling right, not feeling good,” she said. “I gave it to Florence.”