George T. Nierenberg

George Nierenberg and Zella Jackson Price at the National Museum of African American History and Culture premiere, March 2019
George Nierenberg and Zella Jackson Price at the National Museum of African American History and Culture premiere, March 2019

GEORGE T. NIERENBERG is an acclaimed Producer/Director whose career has spanned the world of independent cinema to network, cable and international television. His fascination with the roots of African American culture has led to a series of remarkable films.

George T. Nierenberg with Thomas A. Dorsey
George T. Nierenberg with Thomas A. Dorsey

Nierenberg began his career co-directing a documentary with Gary Wand in 1975 titled The Hollow. Early in the 19th Century two families, the Allens and Kathans, settled in the Southern Adirondack Mountains of New York State. In the 1900s, the Sacandaga Valley below rapidly grew up with farms, factories and mills. The economic disasters of the 1930s shut down the factories and mills. In 1932 the Sacandaga River was dammed, flooding the fertile valley below the Hollow. Forced from their homes, the valley residents sought employment elsewhere, but the Allens and Kathans chose to remain up in the mountains. By 1960’s the their descendants had isolated themselves in a remote hollow high in the mountains. Due to isolation, the Allens and the Kathans had intermarried so all the residents in the Hollow were related. Because of their isolation, misunderstandings developed between them and the outside world.

Nierenberg quickly rose to fame with his sophomore film, No Maps on My Taps. Now in the later stages of life and feeling that their work and their art form was being forgotten, great tap dancers Howard “Sandman” Sims, Chuck Green and Bunny Briggs found newfound fame with the film’s premiere. They and the film gained wide acclaim around the world with a theatrical release featuring live performances by these now-legendary dancers. No Maps on My Taps aired on PBS, cable and international television and was awarded an Emmy. Because he thought there was more to say on the creative inspiration behind tap dancing, Nierenberg went on to direct the film About Tap, featuring some of the same performers, along with Gregory Hines. Milestone restored and re-released both films to acclaim in 2017.

The accolades for Nierenberg increased dramatically with his award-winning film, Say Amen, Somebody (originally released by MGM, now by Milestone) which explores the lives and work of the pioneers of Gospel music. Before its theatrical release, Say Amen, Somebody was celebrated at major film festivals including Cannes, Telluride, New York, Toronto and London. It was named “One of the Ten Best Films Of The Year” by People Magazine, Siskel and Ebert, and Rolling Stone, among many others.

In Say Amen, Somebody, Nierenberg presents the stories and performances in a way that is immersive and as joyous as the music itself. He interweaves footage of some of the greatest Gospel singers in history —notably in a staged appreciationfor Gospel pioneer Willie Mae Ford Smith — with intimate scenes of the performers’ personal lives.

From left: Chuck Green, director George T. Nierenberg, Howard “Sandman Sims” and Bunny Briggs during the filming of NO MAPS ON MY TAPS, a film by George T. Nierenberg and restored by Milestone Films

On No Maps on My Taps, Nierenberg developed a streamlined, dramatic focus to filmmaking. Nierenberg first spent months getting to know the performers, becoming intimate with their stories, their dreams, their hopes and their frustrations. He got to know their friends and family. This depth of experience and familiarity allowed him to create environments in which the performers were authentic when the cameras were rolling.

His goal was to make as concentrated a story as possible, so the documentary would contain the kind of evolving relationships and themes one might expect from a narrative film. For example, Nierenberg already knew of the tensions between Delois Barrett Campbell and her husband about her upcoming tour of Europe. Their on-screen discussion, though prompted by the director, was both real and very intense. Nierenberg cuts from that inconclusive argument, to the Barrett Sisters performance of He Brought Us with the first line, “The road might not be easy,” — creating an emotional centerpiece to the film.

But the greatest strength of Say Amen, Somebody are the film’s incredible performances. Captured in 24-track sound and filmed in an up-close-and-personal shooting style they are an ecstasy-inducing experience. In the much-loved original release, the limitations of the analog 35mm mono optical track was never noticed by the adoring audiences. However, the new digital restoration features the original stereo track that was created from the 24-track mag tracks as well as a new 5.1 digital restoration. Both the stereo and 5.1 tracks have been restored in Los Angeles by Audio Mechanics’ founder John Polito.

Nierenberg went on to receive an Emmy nomination for directing That Rhythm…Those Blues, featuring pioneer blues performers Ruth Brown and Charles Brown. The film tells the story of the early days of rhythm and blues and the ways that the genre helped break down racial segregation barriers at a time when Jim Crow laws were the norm in the United States.

Working in television, Nierenberg has produced, directed and developed projects for MGM, PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC, AMC, Bravo, Nickelodeon, Cinemax, and Sony BMG, including: Neon Lights, for National Geographic’s Explorer and a film on Voodoo in Haiti for ABC’s Day One. Nierenberg was enlisted as a producer to launch Saturday Night with Connie Chung on CBS.

For American Movie Classics he created Gotta Dance!, a two-part series on ballroom dancing. He also produced and directed Head of the Class: The Lion King for Walt Disney and Bravo.

Nierenberg’s music interests led him to work with Sony BMG where he directed two films: Bill Withers’ Just As I Am and Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer. All of Nierenberg’s films cover more than just their apparent subject matter. That Rhythm… is noted for its treatment of the early days of the civil rights movement, as experienced in the music industry. Say Amen, Somebody dug deep into themes of women’s struggles within patriarchy, the ties of family, and the state of contemporary Gospel. Nierenberg also succeeded in igniting an interest in the subject of his films around the world. Indeed, just as No Maps on My Taps helped rejuvenate interest in tap dancing, Say Amen, Somebody provided invaluable support to the careers of many of its performers.

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