'Say Amen, Somebody': Film Review

Courtesy of Milestone Films
A joyous time capsule of black gospel music.
9/6/2019

Documentarian George T. Nierenberg's newly restored effort finds two gospel pioneers passing the torch to a younger generation in Chicago.

In 1979, George T. Nierenberg's No Maps on My Taps spent time with three onetime stars of tap dance, giving them a chance to shine on film at a moment when the genre had yet to enjoy its 1980s revival. His 1982 film Say Amen, Somebody (both have been restored recently by Milestone Films) does something similar for Chicago-style gospel music, though in this case the idiom had hardly faded; in fact, elderly subjects Thomas A. Dorsey and Willie Mae Ford Smith had been eclipsed commercially by stars who could have been their grandkids. A joy-filled portrait with a healthy appetite for performance footage, Amen has some of the vibe of a Les Blank music doc from the same era, albeit one whose attention is never distracted by what's cooking on the stove. A must for serious gospel fans, it also holds unexpected value for those interested in how attitudes have changed (or haven't) about women with careers outside the home.

Dorsey was an established blues performer (he'd played piano for Ma Rainey, for instance) and had some raunchy hits before sliding permanently over to God's side of the keyboard. Though he was hardly the first African American to record a gospel song, his take on the music (Dorsey says that he took old spirituals and "pepped 'em up") was so popular that many started to think of him as the father of black gospel. He certainly popularized it in Chicago, and wrote at least one hymn, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," that became a staple in white and black churches alike.

But this version of sacred music was not immediately accepted, even in the black congregations that would come to be most identified with it. Smith, a singer who teamed up with Dorsey in the early 1930s, recalls ministers telling her "we don't want that coon-shine stuff in here," and saying she "might as well be Bessie Smith." But Willie Mae Ford Smith was not a weak-willed sort. Even approaching 80, she has a matriarch's influence over her family, as we see in scenes with three or four generations gathered at home. When her grandson admits that he holds to the Christian fundamentalist view that women shouldn't preach in church, he does so in the most deferential way such a thing could be said to a lady of the Lord. (Decades later, he might wish the camera hadn't caught him saying, "I'm not a chauvinist, I just think women ought to stay in their proper place — behind the man.")

Theology aside, women in gospel faced challenges men rarely did: We sit in on a mentoring session between Smith and a young singer, the very talented Zella Jackson Price. As her career heats up and touring opportunities multiply, Price is feeling the guilt of leaving her family for work; Smith endured the same, but recalls that God brought her husband around in time. In another scene, we see this debate play out firsthand in a third woman's kitchen.

Relying as it does on the anecdotes favored by two or three octogenarians, the film offers less than it could have in terms of straightforward who-did-what-and-when history. But it is unexpectedly generous when it comes to the music. We see everything from a frail Dorsey singing regally for a small Bible-study class (he rolls his "r"s and chews his vowels) to full concerts before a revival-style meeting of a gospel singers association.

Though viewers today may be more excited musically by that convention's younger performers — not just Price, but twins Edward and Edgar O'Neal, and a trio called the Barrett Sisters — Nierenberg certainly gives his elder subjects their chances to shine, warbly voices and all. As Smith puts it, when discussing the prospect of retirement, she will keep spreading the Lord's message as long as she can sing: "I may have cracks in my voice as wide as the banks of the Mississippi, but the old Mississippi River keeps on flowing."

Production company: GTN Productions
Distributor: Milestone Films
Director: George T. Nierenberg
Producers: George T. Nierenberg, Karen Nierenberg
Directors of photography: Ed Lachman, Don Lenzer
Editor: Paul Barnes

Rated G, 101 minutes