Genre: Documentary/Cinema Verite
Year Released: 2004
Distributor: Film Movement
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: A Light In the Darkness, This Is Not A Film, This Far By Faith, Africans in America: The Black Church
-No, this is not the BET TV movie of the same name, nor is it related to that film.
-This documentary was featured on PBS’s Independent Lens block.
-The director David Petersen believes that the three most inspirational foods for making indie films are Cheez Wiz, Twinkies, and Tab soda.
One thing that I like about independent films is that you get viewpoints and stories that you never see in mainstream theaters. There’s just so much homogenization going on with pristine productions and shallow mores. I chanced upon this documentary back when I was in high school and I rediscovered it after watching it almost after a decade later. I was moved this time around after watching it.
Let the Church Say Amen is a documentary that was filmed in 2001 in one of the most impoverished areas in Washington DC. It chronicles the lives of the clergy and congregation of the World Missions for Christ church which is a very small place of Worship that’s a storefront church. The church itself looks to be within walking distance from Capitol Hill from what I can gather from the scenery which only highlights the economic divide between the inner city and where the politicians do business.
The pastor is Bobby Perkins who moonlights as an electrician, but puts his heart into this corner church. He gives fiery sermons and testimonies every time each Sunday in that little church, but he isn’t perfect. Pastor Perkins was a former drug addict himself and he wants what’s best for the community. Despite the church not being loaded with funds, they do whatever they can to have food drives, homeless ministry, offer clothes from the church’s basement, tutoring programs, and much more. That was heartwarming of everyone giving back to the community and I wish more churches would do that. The documentary isn’t just about him, but various other members of the congregation with their own struggles. There’s Darlene Duncan who’s training to be a nurse, but struggles with the money and transportation despite working hard to provide for her family. There’s David Surles who is homeless, but he does everything in his power to put food on the table for his kids while also helping others in the shelter. We also have Ceoditis Fulmore AKA Brother C who is a musician that wants to record a gospel album, but midway through the film has to deal with his eldest son dying after being stabbed. Last, but not least is Milton Perkins, who is a widower that wants to buy a house in a better neighborhood and even tutors the local kids at the church. These aren’t characters, but real people and I know people can relate to at least one of them regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
The footage is pure cinema verite which works very well and not just with the aesthetics. Some may shrug most of the footage off as cheap, but it only highlights the grittiness of the impoverished neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. Despite the poverty that this congregation goes through, they still find joy, faith, and hope amongst the darkness. Not only that, everyone does their best to persevere and do what’s right for themselves, their families, and their church families. The portrayal of their tenacity is so refreshing and it breaks several stereotypes of black people being lazy that so many mainstream movies, TV shows, and cartoons play up.
Yes, religion does play a huge role in this documentary as blatantly mentioned in the title, but I wish more churches would be like these people here. They do whatever they can to help the poor, be loving to others, and doing community-based events. I certainly haven’t seen a lot of churches on-screen or in real life be as active in the gospel as this one, and I really like how they don’t judge others or bash people for not believing in their theology.
There are also some subtleties that really added up to the quality of this documentary. One thing that had some accidental brilliance was a scene in Darlene’s home where the music video for “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child played on 106 & Park (hey, this was filmed in 2001, so that was a huge hit at the time). Yeah, it’s a silly pop song, but the chorus had a double meaning with Darlene and the other characters surviving and wanting to do better no matter what. The scene where Brother C is on a local radio station talking about his son’s death was fascinating. He talked about how God will see this investigation through. They found out that the killer was at a nightclub not that long after the stabbing while still at large. Another person in this interview said that if that suspect stabbed a white kid, he wouldn’t be partying it up a day or two after committing manslaughter. That interview and the corresponding town hall where Brother C talked about his son really showed the intricacies in how the justice system only favors some over others without being preachy at all. That storyline is even more relevant now despite being filmed in the early 00s. At the time of that filming, Washington DC had some of the highest rates of unsolved murders especially in minority neighborhoods.
Let the Church Say Amen is a very hopeful documentary to watch. Despite the poverty and suffering, the people at the World Missions Church do whatever they can to be self-sufficient while also helping those in need. The portrayals of the day-to-day lives and how faith affects them was very nice to see. It breaks so many stereotypes in regards to religion, race, and class, so it was a breath of fresh air. Highly recommended .
Adjustable Point System:
Subtract 2-3 points if you don’t like religion playing a part in movies.
-Uplifting without denying the suffering around everything
-Positive portrayal of persevering people, yet realistic
-Gritty cinema verite production with relevant topics
-Unintentional period piece with fashions and tech from 2001
-They could have talked more about the church’s history
-Talk about Christianity may be uncomfortable
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: I’d say it would be a PG if it had an official rating. There aren’t many objectionable things, but there themes of drugs (some of the people are former drug addicts), the justice system, and poverty get shown here. There’s the story of a child getting stabbed and you do see him in an open casket in a tear jerking scene. Let the Church Say Amen would be a great conversation starter in both church and secular spaces though.
All other photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.