Aretha Franklin as the Amazing Grace


Documentary film captures the culture aspects of African Americans during the early 1970s

Film Review

Amazing Grace, the documentary film recently-released having been archived for 47 years, is a treasured masterpiece of historical significance.

During this period of the African American social and cultural trajectory, there were many lessons which were being summed up and pioneering trends initiated.

This concept of Aretha Franklin recording and releasing a double gospel album in 1972 was bold and timely. It turned out to be the largest selling gospel album in United States history.

What many people were not aware of was that the two nights of music with arrangements by the Rev. James Cleveland, Alexander Hamilton the youth director of the Southern California Community Choir and the appearance of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father and longtime Pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Clara Ward, the renowned gospel legend and her mother, Gertrude Mae Ward, were all captured on film by Warner’s Brothers. The film was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, located in an area which has striking similarities to the city of Detroit where the Franklin family made their mark during the post-World War II era.

Listening for years to the album Amazing Grace it seems as if this was a gospel concert that was professionally recorded. The film reveals that the Church was turned into a recording studio in which the audience could have been there through invitation only, considering its size. The grand entry of Aretha both nights, and on the second night, Rev. Franklin and Clara Ward, was theatrical in nature.

This was 1972 and many people in the choir and audience wore their hair in the natural style, including Aretha, Rev. Cleveland and director Alexander Hamilton. The discipline of the Southern California Community Choir was notable adding to the atmosphere of a staged drama.

There are times when the music stops and is begun again at the direction of Aretha, then widely known as the “Queen of Soul.” Cleveland tells the audience at the beginning of the actual soundtrack recording on the first night that you may have to say Amen again if the first take was not done properly.

One of the highlights of the film includes the segment featuring Rev. Franklin. He was called up to the pulpit by Cleveland. Dressed immaculately as usual in the church and the community, C.L., as he was affectionately called by people in Detroit, began to reflect on the character of his daughter’s artistic development.

He observes that many people were moved by the gospel and hymnal selections sung by Aretha along with the choir. Rev. Franklin then says that he was “about to bust wide open,” meaning the shedding of tears. He said the concert recording and filming took him back to the early years when Aretha and Cleveland spent hour practicing in the family living room on East Boston Blvd. in Detroit.

Franklin says of Aretha that “she was heavily influenced by James (Cleveland). He later goes on to note the influence of Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, his longtime friends and collaborators, assessing that Aretha’s approach to music was a “synthesis” of these influences along with her own artistic contributions. “Aretha is just a stone singer,” he says.

He mentions a response to a statement from someone working in a dry cleaner in Detroit who told Rev. Franklin that she had seen Aretha on television. After asking what did she think about Aretha’s performance, the woman said: “it was alright, but I will be glad when she returns to the church.” The elder Franklin responds by saying “the fact of the matter is she has never left the church.”

Of course such a response is reflective of the dialectical relationship between sacred and secular music in the African American tradition. Such a reality makes this film a must see for all concerned and interested in these important cultural questions which have profound political and historical significance as well.

From Detroit to Los Angeles: The Struggle Continued

The Motor City and the City of Angels had many things in common by the beginning of 1972. Over the previous decade the municipalities had gained notoriety for the role of the African American struggle and its impact on proletarian culture.

Minister Malcolm X was the national spokesman for the Nation of Islam in April 1962 when he intervened in Los Angeles after the attack on Mosque No. 27 which resulted in the brutal police killing of Secretary Ronald Stokes. Malcolm was able to pull together a citywide coalition to denounce the killing of Stokes and the wounding of several other NOI members.

In a public address caught on film, Malcolm laid out the character of police-community relations within the African American nation. He said that the cops were not in the community to protect the people. They were there only to intensify social control and national oppression through the brutalization of the African American masses.

Detroit during the early 1960s was a pressure cooker as well. The wholesale removal of the African American community from the lower east side neighborhoods of Black Bottom, Paradise Valley and other areas created an atmosphere of resentment and militancy.

On June 23, 1963, the largest demonstration up until that point related to the movement for civil rights and Black emancipation was held in Detroit drawing hundreds of thousands. The march was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. C.L. Franklin and host of other women and men who walk down Woodward Avenue to Cobo Hall where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) co-founder and president would deliver an earlier rendition of his “I Have a Dream Speech.”

Moreover, by August 11, 1965, the Watts section of L.A. exploded into the largest urban rebellion led by African Americans in U.S. history. The Watts Rebellion would solidify the shift from Freedom Now to Black Power.

Of course nearly two years later, on July 23, 1967, Detroit would explode in fury with a rebellion more widespread and violent than what occurred in Watts. These events would shape the political consciousness of the African American working class and revolutionary intelligentsia for years to come. The historical memory of Watts, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, etc. still evokes fear within the inherent paranoid mentality of the U.S. ruling class well into the 21st century.

Even five to seven years later when Amazing Grace was recorded and filmed, the people’s heightened consciousness is revealed in the documentary. It is with enormous pride that those who understand this history are able to view just a glimpse of the time period on film.

Significance of the Documentary

At the same time it was with great anticipation that this documentary was released. The family of Aretha Franklin wasted no time in issuing the film which had been canned for decades. Now people have much more than the album to remember the Queen of Soul in her traditional role as a gospel singer influenced by her father and the African American cultural tradition as a whole.

Aretha made the transition to the ancestral realm on August 16, 2018 at her Detroit home. The city was plunged into two weeks of mourning. Public viewings and a memorial lasting four days attracted hundreds of thousands coming to pay their last “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” to whom one radio announcer broadcasting live outside the Dr. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History described as the “Queen of Detroit.”

The release of this documentary makes one wonder and desire for the unveiling of the many hours of other film footage of the African American and African world struggle which should be seen by millions as a testament to the gallant history of the people in their efforts aimed at cultural expression and self-determination.

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Monday May 6, 2019

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