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Michael Gerson: The emotional resonance of 'Amazing Grace'

"Amazing Grace" has concert footage from 1972 of Aretha Franklin performing songs from the best-selling gospel album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
"Amazing Grace" has concert footage from 1972 of Aretha Franklin performing songs from the best-selling gospel album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

WASHINGTON — The concert film "Amazing Grace" accomplishes something I thought impossible — capturing the Holy Ghost on celluloid.

Over two days in 1972, director Sidney Pollock filmed Aretha Franklin as she was recording the best-selling gospel album of all time. The setting was the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Franklin was joined by pastor and gospel star James Cleveland, backed by the Southern California Community Choir, and carried aloft by a demonstrative audience.

But it is Franklin who, while hardly speaking a word, dominates every frame of the film (now available in a variety of digital settings). At age 29, she was at the height of her powers, which means the limit of human capability. In the movie, she demonstrates both a supreme confidence in her instrument and an endearing emotional vulnerability. At some points, she is a cool professional with exacting standards. At other points, the singing of the sacred songs of her youth (her father was a Baptist pastor) overwhelms her.

Witnessing Franklin, choir and congregation in the midst of a profound spiritual experience encourages something similar in the viewer. The film should come with a warning: Contains contagious tears.

At the end of the first day of filming — about halfway through the movie — Franklin sings the hymn "Amazing Grace." At first her uplifted face shines with praise and gratitude. But as the phrase approaches, "Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come," both Cleveland and Franklin can no longer continue. She sits and cries for a few moments, as the choir takes over the tune. Was she thinking of some personal struggle? Or perhaps the dangers and toils of the civil rights movement, which had delivered the Civil Rights Act, then lost Martin Luther King Jr. to racist violence?

Franklin eventually retakes the pulpit. Cleveland comes to her side and holds her hand, as though they can only bear the weight of the lyrics together. As the memory of peril gives way to forgiveness and, yes, grace, it is a moment as dramatic and meaningful as in any movie.

Above the Baptist church pulpit is a massive painting of Jesus. It brought to mind a question I have never answered to my satisfaction: Why did so many Africans carried to America in chains eventually adopt the religion held (after a fashion) by their oppressors?

Surely it had something to do with the book of Exodus, which culminates in justice and deliverance for a subjugated people. Slave masters sometimes removed the story of Israel's deliverance from slave Bibles. A fully biblical faith was too radical for their taste.

The attraction of African Americans to Christianity must have also had something to do with the story of the cross. Blacks looked at a suffering savior and found that he more closely resembled themselves than their persecutors. Before being lynched in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1899, Steve Allen said, "Jesus died on the Roman cross for me; through his mercy all my sins are forgiven. I am anchored in Christ." According to one account, Allen "went to his death without a tremor."

African Americans found that the religion of their oppressors actually took their side against oppression. And this insight became a powerful force for change and justice in American history.

But perhaps the greatest appeal of Christianity is simpler. It takes seriously both the reality of sin and the possibility of redemption. This is what explains the enduring appeal of the hymn "Amazing Grace," across every cultural and national boundary. The song was produced in the 1770s by a former slave trader, John Newton. Its lyrics testify to the fact that no one, of any background, is beyond or beneath redeeming grace.

So it is fitting that a song written by a man who had captained a slave ship should have been sung by Mahalia Jackson, who performed at many of MLK's rallies and marches. And it is fitting that the hymn is the emotional centerpiece of Franklin's gospel album and of the movie about it.

See this film. Pollack's cinema verité is especially good at revealing the raw emotion beneath familiar music. And it certainly helps when gospel songs are sung in a voice that makes angels jealous. But there is something more at work here: the firm knowledge that 'twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.