"Say Amen, Somebody," George T. Nierenberg's 1983 documentary about the birthplace of some of the most iconic American gospel music is now receiving a limited theatrical run, and I cannot imagine a better remedy for our current divisive times. In his ecstatic four-star review, my late husband Roger hailed it as "the most joyful movie" he had seen in a long time, with its mixture of exhilarating musical performances and enlightening chronicle of major pioneers in the gospel movement including its father, Professor Thomas A. Dorsey; its mother, Reverend Willie May Ford Smith; and such towering figures as the O'Neal Twins and the Chicago-based trio, the Barrett Sisters.
My mother, Reverend Johnnie M. Hammel, was a minister in the spiritualist church, and at church services we were privy to some of the best gospel music around. She introduced us to many gospel singers, including some of the church-goers in "Say Amen, Somebody." And to this very day, gospel music is some of the most inspiring music to me, as it really gets to your very soul. Mother and Roger bonded over this film and I still have fond memories of him showing it to her for the first time.
Now the documentary's distributor, Milestone Films, has enlisted the support of the Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture and the Academy Film Archive to restore the film in 4K with a spectacular 5.1 soundtrack. It opened on September 6th at New York City's Film at Lincoln Center, and will screen there through September 26th. Over the weekend, it screened at Chicago's historic Music Box Theatre, and will open at another Windy City venue, the Chatham Studio Movie Grill, on Friday, September 20th, for a week-long run.
"When so many of us feel dispirited, there couldn’t be a more perfect time to introduce new audiences to 'Say Amen, Somebody,'" Nierenberg told me. "It is an uplifting, intimate, timeless film about the founders of gospel music and the struggles they went through, despite all obstacles, to get their music heard, that will always leave you feeling hopeful and inspired."