If the toe-tapping gospel music of The Fighting Temptations appeals to you but you were put off by that film’s negative Christian stereotypes and lack of even rote Hollywood spiritual uplift or pro-faith sentiment, treat yourself to this engaging, gospel-infused documentary tribute to the African-American men and women who first began combining the heart and soul of Negro spirituals with the infectious rhythms of jazz and blues.
Among these is "Professor" Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), the "father of gospel music," best known for such gospel staples as "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and "Peace in the Valley." A Baptist preacher’s son and talented barroom entertainer, Dorsey turned to religious themes around 1930 at a time of personal crisis, blending sacred and secular styles in a way initially blasted as perverse and profane by many in the Baptist world ("I’ve been thrown out of some of the best churches," he famously says).
"Mother" Willie Mae Ford Smith (1904-1994), the voice of gospel music through the 30s and 40s, and numerous others. Avoiding educational-style narration, the documentary takes an appreciative approach, allowing the subjects to tell their own story in their own words.
Evangelical viewers as well as Catholics familiar with more minimalist forms of Protestant worship may be struck at the quasi-liturgical and quasi-sacramental aspects of this charismatic subculture, including anointing with oil, clergy-like vestments complete with stoles, and a ceremony with white drapes over the furnishings. Some viewers may also find poignance and irony in Dorsey and Ford’s disapproval of the commercial mainstreaming of gospel music, given the entertainment-flavored, show-like quality of the kind of music-driven worship they pioneered.
Yet Say Amen, Somebody should also be a faith-warming experience for any Christian, Catholic or Protestant. Like the Catholic writer Ronald Knox writing Enthusiasm about related forms of non-Catholic spirituality, Catholics watching this documentary should find that this enthusiastic, stripped-down spirituality, though alien and truncated, is also familiar, with much to admire and appreciate.
How can you watch a movie when you keep wanting to close your eyes in prayer?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.