Mary J. Blige has the opportunity to make history at the Oscars. Tuesday morning (Jan. 23), the Academy announced that the singer-songwriter/actress was up for not only best supporting actress for her role in Netflix’s Mudbound, but also for best original song — a historical feat in itself, as no one has been nominated for both in the same year for the same film.
And no one gets two Oscar nominations without some story of a come-up behind it. Blige blossomed out of the projects in Yonkers, New York to earn nine Grammy awards as an absolute R&B legend. But little has been said of her acting career in its early days.
So we went through and dug up everything that lead to Blige’s critically acclaimed role — from the countless times she had to play herself on primetime sitcoms, to a TV movie, and a few musicals, here is a timeline of Blige hitting the screen before Mudbound.
The Jamie Foxx Show (1998)
By 1998, Blige was well-established as an artist. Her third album Share My World had opened at No.1 on The Billboard 200 Album chart the year prior, and she’d already collected two gold singles and one platinum. Her appearance on The Jamie Foxx Show was less about building an acting reel, and more so the kind of required ’90s sitcom cameo that any culturally relevant figure made. She played a singing preacher’s daughter, complete with two musical numbers in the episode.
Prison Song (2001)
Mary J Blige recently told Variety about this turn-of-the-century drama that she “hopes people don’t go digging it up,” but we are doing just that. Much like her Jamie Foxx appearance, the film called on big ’90s names from pop culture, with Blige playing A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip’s mother. The entirety of the film is an hour and a half, and can be found on YouTube. (Sorry, Mary J.)
Ghost Whisperer (2007)
After Prison Song, Blige took a brief hiatus from acting, only to return to the Jennifer Love Hewitt-starring primetime drama Ghost Whisperer. Blige’s appearance came the Friday before the 2007 Grammys, so again, this appearance still felt like it’s about Blige as an artist making a cameo, more so than a true space to show her acting. Plus, it’s unclear if anyone got to really prove their acting skills on The Ghost Whisperer.
Entourage was just about to peak when Blige made her 2007 cameo. In the episode she played herself, a high-powered R&B singer-songwriter. The show’s credits previewed a snippet of “Grown Woman Complex,” a song off of her upcoming album Growing Pains.
30 Rock (2009)
30 Rock called on a slew of celebrities for their season finale in 2009, and Blige was one of the many. She lent her voice to show’s “Kidney Now!” benefit concert, along with Clay Aiken, Sheryl Crow, and Cyndi Lauper. Blige told MTV News of the gig, “I had so much fun! Everyone was so nice and respectful of each other, and it felt like family. I couldn’t stop laughing in-between takes. I was sad when I left; I wanted to come back the next day.”
I Can Do All Bad By Myself (2009)
After collecting TV show cameos, Blige made her first nearly non-music related film debut in Tyler Perry’s I Can Do All Bad By Myself. The film starred Taraji P Henson, with Blige as an inspiring singing bartender at the nightclub Henson’s character frequents. This was definitely Blige’s first time on screen in a big-budget film production; however her role was still basically a parallel version of herself in real life.
Rock of Ages (2012)
Much like I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Blige played a confident singer in Rock of Ages. The Broadway adaptation starred Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, and Julianne Hough, and while it’s not technically the critics’ favorite, it certainly opened up Blige to larger audiences in her acting career, and her role still shines in the film.
Betty and Coretta (2013)
The TV movie Betty and Coretta was one of Blige’s first true starring roles. She played Malcolm X’s, widow alongside Angela Bassett, who played Coretta Scott King. While much of the buzz around the movie had to do with historical inaccuracies, it was quietly a turning point for Blige’s acting career, as she took on a large, serious, and non-music-related role. She told The Hollywood Reporter that she “used the intimidation of acting alongside Bassett to burn and grow from watching her.”
Black Nativity (2013)
In the same year she starred with Bassett in Betty and Coretta, Blige returned with the Oscar-nominated actress in Black Nativity. The movie was a compilation of notable singers and rappers doing a hybrid of singing and acting — the star filmed Jennifer Hudson, Nas and Forrest Whitaker, who is admittedly not a singer or a rapper.
And in an unofficial follow-up to 2009’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Blige found herself on screen with Henson once again. As one of the biggest shows of the last few years, Blige’s appearance on the music industry primetime soap Empire solidified herself as a mainstay in both acting and singing. The episode even included a beautiful duet between Blige and Terrence Howard.
While Black-ish is technically a sitcom, the season finale of its first season was a ’20s throwback drama, with Blige as one of the main characters. In a display of her fully grown acting chops, Blige starred alongside Laurence Fishburne with ease and grace.
The Wiz Live (2015)
In NBC’s live broadcast of The Wiz, Blige played the wicked witch of the west. Her convincing role as the evil but alluring villain earned her a Critic’s Choice nomination.
How to Get Away with Murder (2016)
Blige continued her role as a go-to cameo for some of TV’s biggest primetime shows, this time for ABC crime drama How To Get Away With Murder, where she played a hairdresser in the award-winning 2016 season.
And finally, the role Blige has been building for the entire span of her career. In the Netflix original, Blige played the matriarch of a black family living in the Mississippi Delta during World War Two. In some ways, the role mirrorred her life, and what she’s always said about herself: Her character is aware of the tragic disparities she faces, but is nonetheless willing to love and make what she can of it. Blige is as strong as she’s always been, but she plays it with complexity now. After years of sitcoms, and TV movies, Blige has grown into an Oscar-nominated actress.