Say Amen, Somebody (1982)
Directed by George T. Nierenberg
Produced by George T. Nierenberg, Karen Nierenberg
Cinematography by Edward Lachman, Don Lenzer
Edited by Paul Barnes
Distributed by MGM/UA
4K restoration by Milestone Films
(1:40) Criterion Channel
Roger Ebert called Say Amen, Somebody, a documentary of African American gospel music, “one of the most joyful movies I’ve ever seen.” When I heard this on an episode of Sneak Previews in 1982, I was in the middle of my second year of college studying music. I found little joy in that pursuit, struggling through music theory, the tangled ball of string that is music history, teeth-gnashing twelve-tone “music,” sweating through marching band rehearsals, and learning that my own trumpet playing wasn’t cutting it. Yet here, Ebert promised, was a movie about music that was joyful.
I sought the film out, but it opened in limited release, and I couldn’t find it. It didn’t matter whether it became available on VHS, since I didn’t then own a VCR. The film and I never crossed paths until nearly 40 years later, thanks to a 4K restoration by Milestone Films with support from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Academy Film Archive, and the Criterion Channel.
Say Amen, Somebody opens with a close shot of an elderly African American man wearing a cream-colored suit, slightly stooped over and facing the camera. His speech is soft from many decades of use, but the power is unmistakable. “Down through the ages, gospel’s what? What did they say it was?” He awaits an answer and receives none. “You mean to tell me you don’t know that? Good news! On down through the ages, gospel was good news. If you don’t know that, I will throw you outta here myself!”
You’ve just met Thomas A. Dorsey, often recognized as the “Father of Gospel Music,” a man who played piano for blues legend Ma Rainey and wrote the gospel standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” among others. In less than a minute of screen time, we understand that Dorsey is gospel royalty, an icon.
But so is Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, an associate of Dorsey who performed and trained gospel singers for most of her adult life. Although her years of singing and teaching have no doubt earned such behavior, she’s no diva. Smith seems less a performer and more an evangelist, and I mean that in the word’s true sense as someone who brings the gospel to others. “It’s just a feeling within,” Smith says. “You can’t help yourself… It goes between the marrow and the bones… You hearing me say I wanna fly away somewhere? I feel like I can fly away. I forget I’m in the world sometime. I just wanna take off.”
Ford (78 at the time of filming) and Dorsey (83) are both onscreen for much of the film. Both have stories to tell. Both are forces of nature. Yet the story is larger than these two pioneers. It’s about the music, but the music as an avenue to deliver a message.
In what may have been an impromptu moment, Smith sings to a group of elderly people - black and white - in a restaurant. They are all dancing and clapping, and it doesn’t take long for you to understand why. Whether she’s in a restaurant or a massive church, Smith’s singing is compelling, powerful, and irresistible. “I have a God to glorify,” she tells the camera in an on-the-street interview. “The Lord gave me a charge and that’s my voice to sing and preach, and I do both.”
One might think that the intent of the film is educational, to instruct people in the history of African American gospel music as well as the stories of Dorsey and Smith, but this is no boring, stuffy documentary. Say Amen, Somebody is perhaps the most fully alive documentary I have ever seen. And although songs like “Jesus Dropped the Charges” will absolutely knock you out, the film also includes glimpses of the less sanctified side of humanity. Mother Smith and Dorsey’s longtime manager Sallie Martin disagree (“argue” would be too strong a word) over the actual date and place of the first gospel convention. Smith and her adult grandson banter a theological issue.
Singer Zella Jackson Price laments the amount of time performing takes her away from her family. So does Reverend Frank Campbell, whose wife Delois Barrett Campbell has an opportunity to tour Europe singing with her two sisters, leaving the rest of her family for an extended time. The O’Neal twins, Edward and Edgar, bemoan the fact that gospel music - even in 1982 - was getting far too commercial and focused on entertainment rather than worship. Yet they all press on. The film could’ve legitimately stolen the tagline from The Blue Brothers, a film made just two years before: “We’re on a mission from God.”
Dorsey remembers how he took church music and spiritual hymns, “spiced them up,” and called it gospel music, but congregations in the 1930s and 1940s didn’t want blues-based singing in their churches. After organizing a gospel singers convention, things began to change. By 1982 (and well before), a multitude of African American Christian churches embraced gospel music from small congregations to mega-churches, utilizing small groups or large choirs with orchestras. But getting there wasn’t easy.
Some might look at Say Amen, Somebody and see only its charisma and energy, dismissing it as pure emotionalism without solid theology. Are the participants simply caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, or does the joy come from a genuine celebration of the good news of Christ? Listen to the songs. The gospel message is clearly there. Are people criticizing the message itself or the package it’s delivered in? You do not have to be a believer to enjoy Say Amen, Somebody, but who knows? You could be one afterward.
Filmmaker George Nierenberg seems an unlikely choice for such a film project. Nierenberg, a white Jewish filmmaker, had no experience with gospel music, but was encouraged by blues guitarist Ry Cooder to explore it. Nierenberg spent a year in African American churches, becoming familiar with their music, their culture, their lives. All of the film’s participants are clearly at ease in front of the camera. They obviously trusted Nierenberg.
I wish I could see this film in a packed theater, not only to experience the music surrounding me, but also to see how many theater-goers would actually get out of their seats and start dancing. I couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t be one of them.
Say Amen, Somebody is currently playing on the Criterion Channel.