Say Amen, Somebody, a documentary about the men and women who pioneered African American gospel music, was widely praised upon its release in 1982; the late Roger Ebert called it "One of the most joyful movies I've ever seen." But it hasn't been seen in theaters in nearly 30 years. Now George T. Nierenberg's film has been restored and re-released to theaters and DVD.
At the time, Nierenberg was looking for a follow-up to his award-winning 1979 tap dance documentary, No Maps on My Taps, when he had dinner with musician Ry Cooder.
"I asked him for any suggestions that he had for another topic for an interesting film, and he said — these were his exact words — he said, 'You oughta look into gospel music; those cats are really neat,' " Nierenberg remembers.
Two of those "cats" became the focus of Nierenberg's film. The first was Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the father of gospel music.
Dorsey was a popular blues pianist and arranger — he was best known as Ma Rainey's band leader, until he took the blues and adapted it to sacred music. In the film, he tells the story of how the death of his wife and their newborn child led him to church music.
"I just tried to make my little talk to the Lord but it was wasted, I think," Dorsey tells the audience.
In Dorsey's story, he was stuck until a friend suggested he try adding "precious" to his address.
"And ladies and gentlemen, believe it or not, I started singing right then and there: 'Precious Lord, take my hand,' " Dorsey continues, launching into song at the end of his story.
Nierenberg's other main character was Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, one of gospel's pioneering female ministers and performers, and a mentor to younger singers.
"It's just a feeling within; you can't help yourself," Smith says in the film, describing the experience of singing gospel. "It goes between the marrow and the bone. It just makes you feel like you want to — you hear me say I want to fly away somewhere? I feel like I can fly away!"
Nierenberg, a 28-year-old Jewish man, knew almost nothing about gospel before he started Say Amen, Somebody; he spent a year in black churches in New York, Chicago and St. Louis, listening to the music, getting to know the performers and earning their trust before he began filming. And that's how he came to capture his subjects accurately, says Dr. Rhea Combs.
"He is coming in as a collaborator with them, as opposed to this notion or feeling of voyeurism," she says. "He is understanding the dynamics at play and he has a sensitivity to the story and the people — truly to the people — and respects them. And I think that that respect is then reflected in the way in which the film is produced and directed."
Combs is curator of photography and film at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which helped fund the restoration of Say Amen, Somebody. She says another thing that sets the film apart is its focus on female performers; Nierenberg says the women faced opposition from both the Church and their families
"They were bucking the system when it came to performing their music in churches," he says. "Ministers didn't want them there. And they insisted; they pursued it nonetheless."
In the film, Mother Smith talks about her husband's resistance to her traveling; Delois Barrett Campbell's husband objects, too.
"You know, Frank, this has been my life dream to go abroad," Barrett says to her husband in one scene. "From a childhood day I dreamed of being a great singer, and singing over in Europe. And now that the chance has come, to just stop and [not] be able to fulfill my dream when it is really coming into reality — it would be quite a letdown to me."
Nierenberg's documentary catches these performers in their homes and at two events: the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses and a tribute to Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith that Nierenberg helped put together.
Combs says the filmmaker recorded a crucial changing of the guard between generations.
"You have this kind of new tradition of people singing and re-invigorating gospel music in a different sort of way," she says. "You have the Barrett Sisters; you have the O'Neal Twins. You have this kind of inter-generational blending, and we're seeing that in this film, where there is this sort of critical moment within the tradition of gospel music — sort of this passing of the torch, if you will."
For his part, Nierenberg is grateful for the restoration of Say Amen, Somebody because of what it might mean for new audiences, especially because the film's central figures are no longer with us: Thomas A. Dorsey died in 1993 and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith died the following year.
"When I saw the film after it was restored, it felt like a new film completely," he says. "And I think the real treasure for me is the legacy of the film and how it will carry forward gospel music and allow people for generations to experience this music: at this time and place and [with] those people that really created it."