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By Herb Kane | May 5, 2002

SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY ^ (1982) ^ by Herb Kane ^ * * * * * (out of 5 stars) ^ CRITIC DOCTOR EXAMINES: Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) ^ I’m convinced Roger Ebert knows how to end a festival on the right note – musically speaking. Last year it was Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You” and this year it’s George Nierenberg’s “Say Amen, Somebody.”
This is a 20 year-old documentary featuring some of gospel music’s pioneers: Mother Willie May Ford Smith (age 79) and Thomas Dorsey (age 83).
Ebert said in his review, “There’s a hilarious sequence in which Dorsey and Mother Smith disagree very pointedly over exactly which of them convened the first gospel convention.” Indeed – it was funny. Like watching family members argue petty issues and you cannot help but laugh. This humor is throughout and keeps everything extremely interesting and fresh. The music, however, is what brings this movie to life!
There are soft tunes and all out spirit-filled gospel songs that will wake you up and make you believe in God! But underneath it all are people of faith who have a mission for God – to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone they come into contact with and in such a powerful way. It was a truly inspiring documentary. Very fun!
Ebert said, “Nierenberg’s achievement here is a masterpiece of research, diligence and direction. But his work would be meaningless if the movie didn’t convey the spirit of the people in it, and ‘Say Amen, Somebody’ does that with mighty joy. This is a great experience.”
In 1982, Ebert saw this movie at the “Telluride Film Festival” in Colorado. That festival showed the movie and then brought Mother Willie May Ford Smith on stage for a performance. While Mother Smith and Dorsey have gone on to Heaven, Ebert decided this year to do something similar by inviting the “Barrett Sisters,” the only active gospel group in the documentary, to the “Virginia Theater” for a live concert following the movie.
Wow! Here are three women in their mid 70’s singing on stage like they were no more than 30 years old. I couldn’t believe the energy! They got people in the audience to clap and say “Amen!” DeLois, who has arthritis, sang from her wheelchair with a sister at each side. She said, “Roger Ebert said we could perform as long as we want and now we’re gonna have church!” They belted out more tunes and zapped the audience with the power of God.
Roger said to the group after the performance, “The three of you are amazing. You have so much life and so much energy. I don’t know why you even tell people how old you are.”
The night before, Edwin Jahiel, a gruffly old professor/film critic was on stage in a panel discussion with two other critics and the Alloy Orchestra following the 1926 film “Metropolis.’ The Professor made a knee-jerk comment: “Those people were too smart to believe in religion.” Some audience members thought his comment was disrespectful and intolerant toward people of faith – especially toward those who were present. Ebert quickly changed the subject. I hope the professor attended this concert. I’m sure the Barrett Sisters would welcome him and even give him a big Amen!
Roger Ebert summed this documentary up best: “‘Say Amen, Somebody’ is one of the most joyful movies I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the best musicals and one of the most interesting documentaries. And it’s a terrific good time.”
“Say Amen, Somebody” will make everyone want to say, “Amen!”
Get the whole story in part seven of THUMBATHON: ROGER EBERT’S OVERLOOKED FILM FESTIVAL>>>

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