Reviews

Say Amen, Somebody (1982)

Mark Labowskie

Even if you don’t literally “believe”, you want to believe in the social possibilities this documentary represents.


Say Amen, Somebody

Director: George T. Nierenberg
Cast: Willie Mae Ford Smith, Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, DeLois Barrett Campbell, Zella Jackson Price, Bertha Smith
Distributor: Alpha/Xenon
MPAA rating: G
Studio: United Artists Classic
First date: 1982
US DVD Release Date: 2001-02-03

Late in Borat, the Kazakh journalist stumbles into a white Pentecostal church, where he finds worshippers gyrating in the aisles, speaking in tongues, declaring their faith -- all presided over by a messianic pastor, who helps to whoop the crowd into a frenzy. Borat somehow ends up testifying into the pastor’s microphone, recapitulating most of the film. As with everything in the movie, signals get mixed; his comedy of errors sounds to them like a litany of sorrows. They urge him to repent and be born again and Borat, confused and alone in a foreign country, decides to go along with it.

The whole sequence plays like a familiar parody of American fundamentalism, but I wonder what about the parishioners is being satirized? The Pentecostals do accept Borat unconditionally, and he clearly needs it; we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for them to turn on him, but they never do. So what exactly is being mocked beyond the obvious excesses of their worship style? Is it simply an attempt to score easy laughs from the target demographic by mocking the rubes back home that still believe?

The last 20 years of political history have helped to turn religion into a cudgel; wherever you fall on the belief spectrum, it seems like religion has become an instrument of divisiveness and exclusion. Those who believe condemn those who don’t; those who don’t think those who do are brainwashed simpletons. George T. Nierenberg’s great 1982 documentary Say Amen, Somebody reminds you of the tremendous power and vitality of American religion. In its scenes of prayer and discussion and, most of all, mass, ebullient singing, you feel the potential for religion to unite people and lift them up. It’s easy to stand back and mock the rhetorical excesses -- and the Baptist parishes on display here are more fervent than most -- but the people in the film are not self-righteous or judgmental. They are raucous and earthy and open; their singing and prayer style liberate them from the inhibitions that characterize so many religious services.

The film is loosely structured around two figures central to the development of gospel music in the 20th century: “Mother” Willie Mae Ford Smith (b. 1904) and “Professor” Thomas A. Dorsey (b. 1899). In the history of gospel, Professor Dorsey was the brain, and Mother Smith was the voice. Dorsey had started out as a blues composer (he was Ma Rainey’s band leader), but the death of his wife and baby in childbirth lead him back to the Baptist church. Seeking to bridge his two worlds, he began taking old hymns and setting them to the new, impudent rhythms of jazz, blues, and ragtime.

This concept was not popular with the church hierarchy at first, but Dorsey persisted, establishing the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses (NCGCC) in order to popularize (and market) his music. When he heard Willie Mae Ford Smith, already a traveling spiritual singer, he recognized she had the combination of purity and funk to put his music over. Smith became a muse and promulgator of the gospel movement; she trained future singers as the principal singing teacher of the NCGCC, and traveled all over the country singing and spreading the word. She considered herself an evangelizer rather than a singer, which is why she never attempted the commercial crossover of her peers Mahalia Jackson and Rosetta Tharpe.

Say Amen, Somebody captures these two titanic figures late in their lives (although they would both live more than a decade longer). Their bodies are weakened, now; they both shuffle around on walkers, and Dorsey, having endured two hip replacements, seems particularly frail. Their voices are pretty much busted too; Mother Smith says at one point, “My voice may have cracks as wide as the Mississippi, but like the Mississippi, I keep flowing on.”

But in the film, there’s no sense of faded grandeur. We see them reminiscing directly to the camera, conducting music classes, singing in churches, and interacting with other gospel veterans (including Sallie Martin, the Barrett Sisters and the O’Neal Twins). They’re still possessed of tremendous energy and drive. Their minds are still sharp, their personalities still vibrant -- and a bit ornery.

They’re also contrasting types. Professor Dorsey is as skinny and antic as Mother Smith is large and rooted. Dorsey is an imp, a ham, a born showman (he likes to address the off-camera interviewer as “ladies and gentleman”.) When he leads a singing class, he conducts with his entire body, his bony, elegant hands shaping the music, his cheeks and jowls enunciating every word. He can seem one moment like a clownish rake, your favorite grandparent, but then display a gravitas that comes from a lifetime of hardship.

Recalling all the homilies his friends hoisted on him after his wife and child’s death, he curtly declares, “None of it’s ever been soothing to me, from that day to this day.” Mother Smith has also experienced suffering and regret, but she projects the serenity and joy of someone doing what they love most in the world. She’s also a bit of a bulldozer, and can bear down on anyone who tries to take her on.

The comic high point of the film comes at the NCGCC, where Mother Smith and Sallie Martin get into a classic, passive-aggressive, old-lady argument, bickering back and forth in genteel tones over whether the Convention originated in St. Louis or Chicago (the whole while, Dorsey is seated quietly in the middle, looking at the camera as if to say, “Can you believe I still have to put up with this?”)

Dorsey and Smith both recount, with seeming relish, the church’s resistance to their brand of music. Engaging with any muscles below the neck while in the presence of God seemed like sacrilege, but it’s clear that Dorsey and Smith’s brand of music -- full-throated, raw, bluesy, improvisational, not “pretty” -- brought many people into the church and brought those already there into deeper connection. It became part of the whole Baptists ethos; not just in the singing, but also in the free movement of bodies during a service, the ease with which people call out (“Right on!” “Oh yes he did”) during a sermon, the way in which bodies start to intermingle towards the end, so that the line between preacher and parishioners is blurred.

The film presents you with a vision of an authentically American religion and, like Robert Duvall’s The Apostle many years later, it doesn’t leave you on the outside. Even if you don’t literally “believe”, you want to believe in the social possibilities this represents.

Nierenberg is a skilled documentarian, although it must be said that the music and the people do a lot of the work for him. He doesn’t immerse you in the life onscreen to the overwhelming extent that Frederick Wiseman does; but then, who can? There are some awkward scenes in which two of Willie Mae’s children tour some of her old Chicago haunts and conduct expositional conversations about her life. And there are a few scenes where it looks like the director told his subjects, “Talk about this” and then turned the camera on to record their impromptu rap session. The film is torn between an atmospheric, purely experiential approach and a more conventional, history-of-gospel one.

It’s the former approach that produces most of the film’s great moments. In addition to all the glorious music, the movie is filled with throwaway scenes that encapsulate an entire issue. There’s Mother Smith dressing down a young student in one of her singing classes, displaying her toughness, her standards and her musical intelligence; a painfully awkward scene between the lead Barrett sister and her husband, in which he essentially tells her to give up her career and help him with his struggling storefront church, “When can our ministry be together?” he asks; and a tension-laden conversation between Mother Smith and one of her grandsons, who voices his belief that women should not be allowed in the pulpit (Mother Smith’s response is that “If God could make a jackass talk, he can make a woman preach.”)

And there are moments that simply have the unexpected beauty of reality -- the kind of moments that documentaries exist for, such as when Zella Jackson Price, after being introduced in one scene as a rather meek, anguished woman, turns up in the very next scene, leading a service with an explosive, ecstatic rendition of “I’m His Child”.

By intercutting domestic scenes and performance ones, Nierenberg makes us feel the connections between life and art (we understand what this music means to all these people and why they have to go on singing). The many performance scenes are raucously, jubilantly alive. Nierenberg shows the audience (which often contains other singers) as much as the performers, and the interplay between the two is startlingly intimate: high notes and favorite lyrics receive rounds of applause; singers get right up in people’s faces (not aggressively) and sing directly to them. There are no boundaries between people, no inhibitions, no reserve. If our contemporary culture is defined by distance -- detachment wrapped in sarcasm -- this movie reminds us of the human thing at the center of all art, whether religious or secular: only connect.

Regarding extras, Nierenberg’s commentary track starts a bit slowly, but ultimately becomes fascinating. He reveals which scenes were “staged” and which scenes were “found” -- always a useful distinction in documentary filmmaking -- and shares choice tidbits about the characters, like the fact that Mother’s Smith adopted daughter Bertha is, in fact, older than Mother Smith. The other features are mostly standard: a menu of all the performance scenes, a brief photo essay on the making of the film, and the theatrical trailer. Best of all, the DVD comes with a soundtrack CD featuring all the songs in the film.

8
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