During these days of anxiety and self-isolation, this cinematic celebration is a glorious reminder of the power of community, prayer, and song—filled with Chicago talent
By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
One of the most acclaimed music documentaries of all time, “Say Amen, Somebody,” is George Nierenberg’s masterpiece — a joyous, funny, deeply emotional celebration of African American culture, featuring the father of Gospel, Thomas A. Dorsey (“Precious Lord, Take My Hand”); its matron, Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith; and earth-shaking performances by the Barrett Sisters and the O’Neal Twins. When it was first released in the early 1980s, the film received an overwhelming critical response, garnering rave reviews around the world.
“One of the most joyful movies I’ve ever seen.”
— Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“The film’s mood is never less than marvelously infectious.”
— Richard Schickel, Time
“The music conquers doubt and unhappiness, and when it ends, you feel healed.”
— David Denby, New York Magazine
Quoting Willie Mae Ford Smith: “‘I just have a feeling within… You can’t help yourself. It goes between the marrow and the bones. I feel like I could fly’…[the film] has the same uplifting effect on its audience.”
— Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News
This is a fabulous, toe-tapping good time of a documentary. Dorsey notes that Gospel music was once frowned upon because “The Church” deemed the genre too bluesy. But Dorsey had another opinion, and his ubiquitous hit “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was borne, unfortunately, out of two deaths—that of his wife during childbirth and shortly thereafter his son.
He was so wracked with pain, and laid it all to bear in a song that has been performed by countless folks all over the world—particularly at funerals. Research also reveals that the song has been translated into more than 30 languages.
Dorsey passed in early 1993, and the face and tone of Gospel music have changed even more from the style ushered in by him. Notably, Kirk Franklin brought to the forefront so-called Hip Hop or urban contemporary Gospel with “Stomp” in 1997, even though he had recorded “Why We Sing” in 1993.
I say Dorsey and those Gospel greats paved the way for today’s artists. One of the Barrett sisters caught flak from her husband who was a preacher and who felt that her trip to Europe was just too much. He was upset that she would miss a Sunday service.
But at that time, the beauty of Gospel music was being shared outside of the United States, and now established Gospel artists probably do not get much push back when they say they have tour dates that extend a bit long.
There were sad times in the documentary when Ford Smith’s adult children visited an old passenger train station. They at first were jubilant and waxing nostalgic about how their mother had been treated as royalty. But the son and daughter grew melancholy when they recalled the sadness they felt when their mother would go off to singing gigs or conventions.
It is no question that Dorsey (the Father of Gospel Music) and his era of Gospel music (which came straight out of the South Side of Chicago and Pilgrim Baptist Church) and musicians had a great impact on the genre. Just watching “Say Amen, Somebody” brought memories of my early years in the Baptist Church, my mom singing and shouting when “the spirit” hit her like going through the marrow in the bones, as Ford Smith put it.
From Milestone Films, “Say Amen, Somebody” is available to stream or download now for $5.99 per rental. Or visit https://milestone.vhx.tv/packages/say-amen-somebody-restored-version/videos/say-amen-somebodytrailer.