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'The Black Church' review: Must-watch look at this 'nation within a nation'

On PBS' "The Black Church: This is Our

On PBS' "The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song," host Henry Louis Gates Jr., admires the mural at West Angeles Church of God In Christ in  Los Angeles. Credit: McGee Media

DOCUMENTARY "The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song"

WHEN|WHERE Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes viewers on a four-hour two-night tour of the Black church, "all the way down to its bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace" (per the news release). He gets some help, too, with commentary from — among many others — presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church, Civil Rights leaders like Rev. William Barber II, gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar and BeBe Winans; also the occasional star (Oprah Winfrey) or two (John Legend).

MY SAY "The Black Church" begins and ends at the Waldon United Methodist Church in Piedmont, West Virginia, where Gates went every Sunday as a boy growing up nearby. Here's the final scene:

The famous public figure ascends the pulpit, tells the congregation about his own Come-Home-to-Jesus moment in this very place decades earlier, then wiping away tears, leads them in the old spiritual "I Believe I'll Go back Home."

The prodigal son has returned but you are left to wonder whether he ever really left. The years fall away up on that pulpit, along with the fancy degrees, the hit PBS series, even that beer break with President Obama. What's left is the alpha and omega, the Black church, the heart and soul of the African American experience. "I don't know how we would have survived as a people" without the church, says Winfrey early in the program.

How indeed and this insoluble bond is the story of "The Black Church." What a story: Spanning four-plus centuries and two continents, enslavement, the Civil War, freedom, dozens of personalities, schisms, Great Awakenings (two of them), a Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement. Gates calls this the "most important story" he's told but in an obvious sense it's the only one he's ever told too. "Great Railway Journeys'' (1995), "African American Lives," (2006, '08), "Many Rivers to Cross" (2013) each pivot on the same history. They couldn't but otherwise.

What this does do that's so unique is provide context and, of greater value, understanding. This "nation within a nation" — "The Black Church's" recurring metaphor for both institution and all-encompassing culture --- has its own traditions, style and (of course) music. And like any institution (religious in particular) it's battled its own fierce reactionary undertows. Built on freedom, the church was slow to address sexism and homophobia within its own ranks. This film gets around to that story as well.

"The Black Church" traces the tap-roots of the big ones — African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church — and then moves forward, to James Cone's Black Liberation Theology of the '60s, the era of the Preacher Politician (Jesse Jackson) and the crisis activism of Rev. Al Sharpton.

Rev. Ike's "prosperity gospel" movement gets shaded with a particularly colorful quote from Barber — "How did we go from 'I have a dream,'' he wonders, "to bling-bling?" T.D. Jakes' megachurch outside Dallas, Potter's House Church, gets a close-up, too, or rather wide-shot.

Yet for all that's here, much is missing. The Gospel tradition, an oceanic subject in its own right, gets shortchanged. W.E.B. DuBois and his seminal "The Souls of Black Folk" are but mentioned in passing. And not for trying, "The Black Church" can't quite get the present moment into focus either — Black Lives Matter, the racial crisis of the right here-right-now.

What does come into focus is that resonant message. The Black church is the story of America. We're all the luckier — and the better — for it.

BOTTOM LINE First-rate and must-watch.

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