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‘Say Amen, Somebody’ Explains Gospel Music

Gospel Icons Thomas A. Dorsey and Willie Mae Ford Smith Lead the Journey

Church was held in the Oprah Winfrey Theater with the screening of the restored “Say Amen, Somebody.” The 1982 documentary, a gospel history lesson, was shown at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The new rendition was an improvement over the original film first released in 1982.

George Nierenberg, director of the original film, oversaw the restoration. The film features performances and off-stage conversations from the “father of gospel,” Thomas A. Dorsey, Willie Mae Ford Smith, the O’Neal Twins, Zella Jackson Price, and Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters. Nierenberg and Price participated in a discussion following the screening.

“After 37 years, we are thrilled to have this U.S. premiere of the restored film,” said Rhea Combs, curator of photography and film at the NMAAHC.

A scene from the documentary "Say Amen, Somebody" (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)
A scene from the documentary “Say Amen, Somebody” (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The original film was made with support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Support for the restoration came from museum’s Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences-Academy Film Archives, Milestone Films, and the Robert F. Smith Fund. Robert F. Smith, businessman and philanthropist, is the second largest NMAAHC donor. His donation has allowed NMAAHC to digitize and preserve African American stories.

Dorsey is well-known because he composed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” considered to be one of the most beloved gospel songs ever written. He wrote the song during a period of deep grief after the death of his wife and baby within two days of each other. In the film, Dorsey reflected on the lack of acceptance of gospel music. Dorsey started out as a blues singer but was compelled to go in a different direction with his talent.

“They didn’t want that singing,” said Dorsey in the film. “I took spirituals and hymns, put rhythm to it to call it gospel.”

Dorsey has composed more than 400 songs. His songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson and Albertina Walker. Church choirs have adapted his approach to gospel music for decades. He was founder of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses (NCGCC).

“Mother” Smith as she was affectionally called, became a role model for women in the gospel world. She was responsible for evaluating and training solo gospel singers for NCGCC. She forged a path in the genre that eventually became her ministry as an evangelist. Her husband resisted her climb in the world of gospel because the path included lots of travel. That meant time away from the family. Lack of support from husbands was one of the themes in “Say Amen, Somebody.” It was seen with Delois Barnett, lead singer with the Barnett Sisters and with singer Zella Jackson Price.

Nierenberg lived for a year among the key gospel artists featured in the film. He got to know their families. He filmed a scene in the car with Mother Smith and her grandson Keith who said he did not believe women should be in the pulpit.

“She was shocked. I don’t know why he decided to say it at that time,” said Nierenberg about the emotional scene. “You could see the hurt she felt, that her grandson would diminish everything she stood for. Yet, you saw her grandson proudly performing with her and helping her off the stage.”

The final scenes of the documentary were filmed at the 1982 annual NCGCC where Dorsey made an appearance. He led the entire assemblage in singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Geneva Gentry was one of the preparers of a consecration ceremony at the convention. Her daughter Marabeth Gentry, Ph.D., was in the audience at the Oprah Winfrey Theater with several NCGCC members. She is the current president of NCGCC, only the third president in the history of the organization and first female president. After the screening it was announced that the restored “Say Amen, Somebody” will be shown at the NCGCC’s annual convention in Detroit this August.

“This year I said we are going to watch ‘Say Amen, Somebody’ because that’s our roots,” Gentry said with excitement about the upcoming annual NCGCC. “Dr. Dorsey was the beginning. He invented the genre.”

For Price, witnessing the film’s restoration was a moving experience.

“I am so thankful, and I thank George Nierenberg,” Price said. “It’s overwhelming. How can you repeat perfection!”

Nierenberg and Milestone Films are seeking other opportunities to show the film. There are currently no plans for wide distribution.

View a trailer of “Say Amen, Somebody” at http://bit.ly/SayAmenSomebody.

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One Comment

  1. We are very pleased to add that the theatrical premiere of SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY will be September 6 for a three-week run at the Film At Lincoln Center in New York and will have a national release on September 13!
    –Dennis, Milestone Films

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