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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Black Gospel"

2013/11/09 | 725 views | Permalink

I really appreciated the way that this film accurately captures New York City. People often have the misperception of it being this very lively, bustling, clean place filled with white people- well, that's just the image American media likes to sell, sorry about that. But the crew behind this documentary, a group of people whose only purpose is to make a movie explaining what Black Gospel is, have no such national or international agenda. They're all about the music.

Black Gospel is probably the single most influential form of music in the world. Nearly everything that we consider to be modern sound derives from it, but it's not a kind of sound that's really discussed very much. In the first place it's religious- and religious values tend to be incompatible with the modern entertainment industry as a whole. But there's also the matter of the history behind it being, well, really depressing.

This documentary deals a lot with slavery in America- how the slaves coped with their lives and discovered a form of expression that made the misery worth living through. As evil as the institution of slavery was, "Black Gospel" doesn't really wallow in it. The history is explained largely to explain what the feelings are underpinning African-American religious culture. It's inescapable, but essential to grasping how the music is different.

While the story is told from the perspective of the musical group Heritage, their journey of learning about the music and how it changes them is surprisingly muted. The documentary's priority, much like that of Heritage, is just to learn and listen. The group meets with several masters of gospel music, and the simple, deep explanations they give are extremely informative. At one point a sharp critique is made of a song sounding too perfect- which on its face seems ridiculous, but the way the gospel master explains it, this is an obvious fundamental failure of understanding that really gets at the heart of what makes this music so special.

The educational value here is enormous- it's difficult, in the United States, to have conversations on racially charged subjects like this just because of our own baggage concerning the topic. The Koreans in Heritage are fortunate enough to not have to internalize any of these problems, and this makes for a very tight, effective historical and musical survey that feels refreshingly objective.

But even outside the educational value, "Black Gospel" is extremely effective just as a concert movie. There is a lot of singing, ranging the gamut from poor to exceptional. The way the documentary builds up from the beginning really makes the final setpiece, an ending concert, all the more effective in sheer discharge of energy and soul.

Literally speaking the documentary doesn't do much to explain how Heritage personally changed as a result of the trip, and sometimes it seems like there are gaps that don't do the full story justice. But personally, this just made me want to learn more about the musical history involved. A feature-length documentary just isn't enough time to fully explore the rich history of this musical tradition. As a starting point, though, "Black Gospel" accomplishes all its goals admirably and is well-worth a watch even to the casual moviegoer.

Review by William Schwartz

"Black Gospel" is directed by hisMT Ministry and features Kim Yoo-mi, Yang Dong-geun, Jung Joon and Heritage.

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