Mavis Staples is a music icon whose work has influenced artists across several decades. As a member of The Staples Singers, a family gospel group that included her siblings and was masterminded by her father Pops Staples, Mavis was Beyoncé before there was Beyoncé. She's been raising audiences up to their feet for fifty years and was a crucial voice in the civil rights movement. Thanks to director Jessica Edwards, she's finally the subject of a much-deserved documentary called MAVIS!. On the eve of the film's premiere on HBO (check your local listings) we chatted with Edwards about what drove her to bring Mavis's incredible life to the screen.
What inspired you to make this film?
Mavis Staples really inspired me to make a movie about Mavis Staples. She just has this insanely rich history and has just been this, kind of, model for the history of American music. I don’t think there’s a lot of role models out there like she is. First of all, she's a woman, she’s an African-American woman, and she’s an African American woman of a certain age out there doing things that are bringing this joy to the people. I just don’t think that there’s enough out there from a role model perspective with this positive energy.
You do a great job of exploring Mavis's activism, especially during the civil rights era. But it's clear she's still an activist today. In what way does she continue to engage in issues of race?
That’s kind of an interesting question because with "Formation" and Kendrick Lamar's Grammys performance, there are a lot of artists recently that are coming forward and bringing these really important messages of equality to the forefront. But for decades, there wasn’t that kind of message, Mavis and her family never strayed from those messages that MLK taught them. And they influenced an entire generation. That's why we have Chuck D in the movie, he was directly influenced by The Staples Singers because of the kinds of messages that they were singing about Black power, equality and freedom for the African-American community.
Mavis knows that the civil rights era didn't end in 1968 and that’s why these songs are still part of her set and who she is. And that to me is really important, I never wanted the film to have footage of Selma or the hoses, or the dogs or people getting beaten by cops on the road, because that would position this movement in the past, and for Mavis that is not the case.
You were already a fan of Mavis when you set out to make the documentary. What was your impression of her when you met her in person for the first time?
The person that you see in the movie and the person that you meet on the stage is the real Mavis. I think sometimes it is hard to meet our idols because what they portray on stage is very different from what’s going on backstage, but that is not Mavis. She truly is everyday people, and if you spent 10 minutes with Mavis, she would be your grandmother in 10 minutes, too. That felt like this incredible feeling. This first thing she said to me and my partner, Gary, when we were walking out of the dressing room after we had a chance to chat for a couple minutes, she said, "Don't forget about me. Don't forget about me, Jessica," and I was like oh, come on. How could I forget about you?
When was the first time you watched the film with Mavis and what was her reaction?
She saw this film at Austin, Texas, when we world premiered it [at SXSW]. I offered to fly up to Chicago and screen it for her, but she was like, 'Nope, I'm going to fly to Austin. I'm going to go to Austin and see it with my people, and we'll do that.' I was obviously very nervous, but she was so moved by it. It was just such a wave of emotion, you know, seeing [her father] Pops Staples and all of her family. She laughed and she cried, and afterwards she said, "I'm just so happy there's a record now."