Picks and Pans Review: Say Amen, Somebody
George T. Nierenberg, best known for his tap-dancing film No Maps on My Taps, produced and directed this warmly adoring documentary on two pioneers of black gospel music: Willie Mae Ford Smith and Thomas Dorsey. The film is a series of recollections—intercut with singing and close-ups on grainy black-and-white photos—that reconstruct anecdotally the roots of black gospel. Smith, often filmed at home with family members around a dinner table, recalls when churches told her to "take that coonshine" music out of religious settings. Dorsey, a onetime blues pianist, said once he heard "the voice of God was speaking and said, 'You need to change.' " Later his young wife and baby died only days apart in 1932, and Dorsey says, "I started singing right then and there." Also on camera singing or speaking are Mahalia Jackson, the O'Neal Twins and the Barrett Sisters. But the film belongs to the magnificent Dorsey and Mother Smith. She tells her grandson—who is not entirely in favor of his young wife's aspirations to sing gospel—that if a woman can bear kids, keep house and do dishes, "how come she can't take the Word and carry it?" In another scene, she tells a young male singer that his cheeks should act to enrich and hold the tone in his voice. As he begins again, she pushes in her own big cheeks with her index fingers and says, "Don't forget to step on the pedals." The last sequence—when Dorsey and Smith lead a national convention of gospel choirs and choruses—is profoundly moving, with delegates swooning and fainting to the music. And Dorsey, leaning on his walker, moves slowly down a hotel corridor wearing a white robe embroidered in red and quietly singing his classic Precious Lord. "I won't be through with my work," he says at the end, "until God takes my Voice." (G)
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