Will Mary J. Blige be the next great black actress? Today marks her major motion picture debut in the musical Rock of Ages; this, combined with her recently-won role of Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, indicates the soul songstress is angling for a career change.
Let’s face it — music ain’t exactly what it used to be for Blige. Where she used to proudly hang platinum albums on her walls with ease, her most recent musical efforts haven’t exactly lived up to the success of prior records. 2011’s My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act I) sold a paltry 156,000 copies its first week. Though critics felt the album was solid enough, it didn’t quite hold a candle to 1994’s classic My Life, which went three times platinum. Even the album prior to My Life II, 2009’s Stronger with Each Tear, sold over 300,000 copies in the first week, indicating an unfortunate downward trend.
Then there was the recent Burger King gaffe, highlighting the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s talent for singing about fried chicken wraps. The commercial was pulled shortly after it garnered widespread criticism for its racist undertones. Blige claimed in her defense that she had never signed-off on the controversial ad, though it’s not exactly clear why she would agree to shoot the commercial in the first place. There’s only so many places you can get singing about chicken, and higher levels of superstardom isn’t one of them.
However the fickle memory of the masses, along with Mary J’s quick damage control of the entire BK scandal (it’s not even on her Wikipedia page), means the R&B diva will have a chance to revive her waning career through acting. Reportedly, Blige began a serious effort to jumpstart her acting career last year, taking acting lessons, along with hiring a dialect and acting coach. Though she’s had smaller roles, Rock of Ages is Mary J’s first shot at a mainstream blockbuster, starring opposite Hollywood heavyweights like Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Alec Baldwin. Blige plays strip club owner Justice Charlier in this 80’s rock musical.
Hopefully Mary J isn’t putting too much hope in Rock of Ages being her star maker — critics are largely unimpressed by the Broadway adaptation, though her musical performance of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” is seen as a highlight.
Regardless of Rock of Ages‘ success, Blige has already lined up her next gig – she’s set to star in a Lifetime movie as Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz. The film intends to share the relationship between Shabazz and Corretta Scott King during the turbulent civil rights era. Blige reports she’s been studying old interviews of the iconic matriarch in preparation for her role.
The precedent for singers-turned-actors isn’t optimistic for Mary — many have tried and failed to have as great of an impact of the film industry as they have in the music business. However, as the industry continues to evolve away from R&B soul to a younger pop sound, Blige’s move into a new field is likely a good look for her career. For her part, Mary is at least admitting that her acting career is work in progress.
As she explained to Reuters “This is my big break for people to see me not as the greatest actress but as someone who is on her way to doing something great. Because she’s trying to do the work.”
Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse