I was fortunate enough to see George T. Nierenberg’s exceptional documentary when it debuted in 1982, and I’m delighted that it is back on theater screens, with its picture and sound lovingly restored. It is just as I remembered it: a deeply-felt, enriching experience. Say Amen, Somebody tells the story of gospel music by focusing on a handful of key figures in its birth and development. Thomas A. Dorsey is hailed as the father of gospel music, and rightly so. He not only composed some of its enduring songs but endured many years of ostracism from churches and priests who thought it had no place in their services. Captured on camera in old age it is clear why and how he survived: his strength of will is formidable. He knows who he is.
Willie Mae Ford Smith is another survivor who has preached the gospel through music her whole life. The joy she brings to her performances, as well as her encounters with friends, family, and churchgoers, is positively infectious. We meet others who share a zeal for the music, like the Barrett Sisters and the O’Neal Twins.
It would be easy, but simplistic, to describe Say Amen, Somebody as a feel-good movie. The people on screen aren’t plaster saints, and Nierenberg clearly won their trust in order to show them as they really are. They have made sacrifices along the way and have to deal with family dynamics that aren’t always harmonious. That only serves to win our hearts more fully.
Gospel music celebrates the glory of God, and Say Amen, Somebody commemorates some of His most committed messengers. It looks and sounds better than ever in its current restoration, and is well worth seeing with an audience. Don’t be surprised if people around you catch the spirit.
Say Amen, Somebody opens today at Film at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, and will be playing theatrically around the country this fall.