The spiritual backbone for Blacks has often been the church, and the essence of that spirit, the gospel choir. Documentary filmmaker George T. Nierenberg’s gem Say Amen, Somebody (1982) captures the emotion and grit of this powerful genre.
Many, if not all, musical traditions in American culture trace their origins to the idle imaginings of a slave or the recently freed, from the strum of the banjo to the improvisational nature of the horn and the addictiveness of poppy poetic lyricism.
Those genres boiled down, be it bluegrass, soul, jazz, funk, blues, rap, tend to have one elemental influence at their foundations — gospel music. To this day, gospel music plays a large and easily recognizable influence in popular music.
Yet, even in the era of the documentary boom with every legacy rock band and teeny-bopper-turned-adult-bopper doling out hours of behind-the-scenes footage and commentary, there aren’t many docs dedicated to gospel music.
Nierenberg’s Say Amen, Somebody does well in telling the history of gospel greats like Thomas A. Dorsey and Willie Mae Ford Smith, and does so with rhythm, shifting with verve through joyous shots of packed 1980s Chicago Black churches.
Glorious scenes of Black voices rejoicing, echoing the same melodies and harmonies that spawn the endless evolution of American musical genres, are followed by testimonies from gospel singers attempting to grasp their spiritual, soulful calling — and as they reach, their merry spirit ascends upward, bringing the viewer with them.
Say Amen, Somebody is screening at Walker Art Cinema 7 pm Aug. 7 and 9. Tickets cost $10. For more info, visit bit.ly/SayAmenWalker.
Solomon Gustavo was a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.