Mavis! is an enjoyable, feel-good documentary that depicts the successful and ongoing career of soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples. The documentary follows Staples as she tours and reminisces about her remarkable career. It includes archival footage of her family group The Staple Singers performing in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Although the film’s main focus is on the musical career of Mavis rather than the political activism of the Civil Rights era in which she and her family were centrally involved, it does touch on the friendship between Mavis’s father and Martin Luther King.
Although not a big part of the film, this is one of the most interesting aspects because it explores how politics influenced the songs of the Staples and vice versa. It shows how listening to a service given by Martin Luther King inspired Mavis’s father, Pops Staples, to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement and to start writing the freedom songs that the Staples became famous for.
These freedom songs spoke about the experience of racism and the need for civil rights. They reached thousands of people and became part of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement as they drew more people in. One of the most famous of these songs was Freedom Highway, inspired by the police brutality on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
It is striking that Mavis continues the fight against racism. The documentary shows Mavis telling her fans at a concert that the fight for civil rights is not over and that she is “determined to go all the way until Dr King’s dream has been realised”.
The documentary also includes interviews with artists and friends of Mavis and her family such as Bonnie Raitt and Prince. Among these is Bob Dylan whose Blowing in the Wind was covered by Mavis and the Staples. The lines “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” spoke to Pops as he connected the lyrics with his experience as a black man growing up in the South and being forced to cross over the road for a white person coming the other way.
This cover version, along with many of their other songs, demonstrates a uniqueness about the Staples that the documentary draws out which is their ability to mix genres in a way that no gospel artists had done before. Rather than staying within the confines of the black church singing gospel music, the Staples went on to perform rhythm and blues, soul and folk music.
The way in which the documentary charts this progression and mixing of genres makes it worth watching even though it does not quite do justice to the Staples’ political involvement.