Mary J. Blige reflects on how her Oscar-nominated role gave her confidence

Mary J. Blige stars as Florence Jackson, the beating heart of Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Mary J. Blige’s inclusion in award season conversations is surely a surprise -- not because the Queen of Hip Hop Soul’s performance in “Mudbound” is anything less than stellar, but who would’ve ever expected that the “Rock of Ages” and “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” actress would turn out a deeply emotional and dramatic rendering? But Tuesday morning, Blige became a double Oscar nominee, for her supporting role in Dee Rees’ Jim Crow-era epic and for the original song “Mighty River” with Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson.

“It feels really good to be recognized, with all these nominations, because it shows that someone recognizes my hard work and the dedication and the time and how serious I’m taking this craft,” Blige said in an interview with The Times. “That means a lot because I never wanted to take this lightly [and] I didn’t want people to look at me like I didn’t take it seriously because you have the Queen Latifahs and the Tarajis [P. Henson] and the Angela Bassetts and the Viola Davises who worked really hard to pave the way for us. I really want them to be proud of me as well.”

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“Mudbound” follows two soldiers, one black, one white, who’ve returned to small town Mississippi following World War II to discover that their ideas about race have been dramatically altered, although those of the people around them have not. Their families are connected by land with the Jacksons, black sharecroppers, claiming an ancestral connection to the soil they till while the McAllans have just recently purchased the farm. Blige plays Florence, the matriarch of the Jacksons, opposite an ensemble cast that includes Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke and Jonathan Banks.

Of her character, Blige has said, she “is like every woman.”

“She’s the center and holds things together without getting too emotional about it,” she said. “She loves her family. So, I hope people know that … you can figure a way out of things. Florence was a quiet, silent power.”

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The role required her to strip away the hair, makeup and nails of her stage persona, an emotionally difficult task especially as she had just come off a reunion show with Bad Boy Records.

“You don’t realize how vain you are and the issues you have until you have to play Florence and have to get rid of lashes and wigs,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why can’t she wear a wig? I don’t want my own textured hair out there without some sort of relaxer.’ But when you get rid of these things and you’re walking around and people are seeing your natural beauty and they’re actually complimenting you... I realized I didn’t need all of these things.

In the end, Blige said Florence “actually liberated me in a lot of ways [and] gave me a lot of newfound confidence.”

“I hold my head up regardless of if I have a perm or nails or lashes,” she said. “Florence helped me in a time when I was needing that confidence.”

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