Film Review: Say Amen, Somebody
By Belle McIntyre
As close as you will get without actually being in a gospel church, this documentary delivers the experience of the joyful uplift and outpouring of spirit being channeled through a community of true believers. The profiles of some of the seminal figures in the world of gospel music reveals their deeply rooted commitment to both the music and its imperative as a form of ministry. They are not in it for fame and fortune. They are, first and foremost, singing to God and praising the Lord. It is an outward and active expression of faith.
Filmed in 1981 and released a year later, the framework of the film is a tribute to Willie Mae Ford Smith and Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey at the Antioch Baptist Church in St. Louis. “Mother” Smith, as she was known, at 78 was a beloved and revered gospel singer, ordained minister, and mentor to many. She had been spreading the word about gospel music and inspiring many for 50 years. The Rev. Dorsey, at 84, physically frail but spiritually powerful, is considered to be the creator of gospel music as we know it today. A talented pianist, who worked with Ma Rainey, he began as a blues musician, and later turned to writing sacred music. His blues inflected style was not immediately embraced by the Protestant ministers, wary of its intense secular appeal. “Mother” Smith’s performances of his music at a gospel music convention brought acceptance and sales of sheet music to Dorsey, and introduced the new style to a wider audience of singers, writers and parishioners who enthusiastically took it up.
As a person who frequently attends gospel services at churches in Harlem, the film had a lot of historical information that was new and revealing. Given the apparently low priority given to commercial exploitation, it was fascinating to learn that Dorsey had a shrewd business partner, Sallie Martin, who was crucial to his ability to make a living by publishing his songs. Martin, also a performer and entrepreneur, is considered a pioneer in music publishing, radio and television. As gospel music gained wider popularity, recordings became a viable reality as another way to spread news, as opposed to the more itinerant practice of traveling choirs, who regularly performed in guest appearances at other churches, disseminating new forms of the genre.
We are introduced to a fantastically talented and appealing group of the younger performers, who lavish their appreciation and gratitude to the old guard trailblazers that made their paths more attainable. We learn the stories and hear the voices of the Barrett Sisters, the O’Neal Twins and Zella Jackson Price. All are spectacular to listen to. Fascinating, as well are the revelations of personal details in their lives, obstacles, some financial and others, for the women at least, having to do with feminist issues and conflicts between professional and marital demands. Needless to say, the music is sublime. One unforgettable song stood out for me, written by the O’Neal Twins - a song about forgiveness titled “Jesus Dropped the Charges”.
A dream team created this homage to the music, the makers, and the cultural history of gospel music. Nierenberg’s style is personal and subtle without inserting himself into the narrative. The two brilliant cinematographers, Ed Lachman and Don Lenzer are able to showcase the entire scene as well as focus up close and personal. The camera moves around the principal characters, giving a real sense of intimacy. The sound is particularly rich due to the fact that the musical sections are miked and recorded in Dolby sound. The restoration to digital by Milestone Film and Video was painstakingly and flawlessly carried out. It has been a great year for gospel music appreciation in film to have this as well as the posthumous release of the Aretha Franklin film, Amazing Grace. An embarrassment of riches. This one is guaranteed to lift you up and fill you with joy.