“Amazing Grace,” with two-million vinyl discs exiting record stores, was the top-selling gospel record of all time and Aretha Franklin‘s top-selling album. Released in June 1972, the album coincided with the very same month I graduated from an all-white high school in suburban Pittsburgh. Right around that time, on Sunday afternoons, I used my new driver’s license to visit Black churches on the city’s Northside. There, tucked in back rows, I succumbed to the irresistible sound of live gospel music. So it’s personal.
The recording nearly combusted when a big pile-up of talent sparked in similar setting clear across the country. At a modest venue, the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, producer Jerry Wexler, Franklin’s backup singers, Reverend James Cleveland, and the legendary Atlantic Records rhythm section were all present for a magical evening of song. When this singer trills three notes, it’s a spiritual occurrence. Oh to have been there!
Now you can be. Unbeknownst to many, film director Sydney Pollack was on hand to record the proceedings. Pollack’s documentary, Amazing Grace, hampered for decades by technical problems and rights issues, will have a rare screening at a joyous opening night event of the Pan African Film & Arts Festival (PAFF).
In a statement, PAFF Co-Founder and Actor Danny Glover said, “It’s such a blessing to open the festival this year with Amazing Grace. Aretha Franklin is a rare treasure. To be graced with this film is an honor and a testament to the perseverance and long-standing prominence of the festival’s impact.”
Starring in the film are the great songbird, Ms. Franklin, Reverend James Cleveland, Reverend C.L. Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Clara Ward, Mother Ward, Sydney Pollack, Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger. (Why are the Rolling Stones always cued into what is cool?)
The Festival is marking its 27th year in 2019. Ayuko Babu, Executive Director and Co-Founder of PAFF, said, “Twenty-seven years ago, we made a political, cultural, social and intellectual decision to get involved in film festivals as it became clear that a platform to showcase Black films was needed.”
After this fabulous opening night event at the Director’s Guild of American Theatre, the Festival transfers to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Landmark Theater for a huge roster of 170 Black films screening from Feb 7 – 18. The offering is very ambitious, with a film list worthy of study. There’s all kinds of cultural happenings on tap, but I see a comedy event that could be especially good fun.