The Aretha Franklin documentary “Amazing Grace” will be going out on tour this fall and winter, as part of a 22-state road show that will offer free screenings of the film as a centerpiece of multi-day voter registration events being sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign, a historic civil rights organization that Franklin supported since it was founded by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.
The tour is set to be officially announced Monday at a press conference prior to a showing of “Amazing Grace” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Among those participating in the D.C. kickoff event are “Grace” producer Alan Elliott, TV host Joy Reid, gospel singer Richard Smallwood, the current head of the Poor People’s Campaign, the Rev. William J. Barber, and another civil rights activist, Rev. Liz Theoharris. All but Smallwood are expected to take part in the tour in coming months, with weekends already booked in cities like Greenville, North Carolina and Flint, Michigan.
In a separate development, Elliott tells Variety that an “expanded version” of “Amazing Grace” is being prepared for release in theaters next spring, with a plan to have it come out in conjunction with Franklin’s birthday in March. The original cut of the film was released on home video in August.
“Our guiding principle has always been, what would Aretha do?” says Elliott. “This is trying to do right by Aretha’s politics. Aretha went on tour with Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1968 to support the Poor People’s Campaign, of which this is an extension. Aretha was a big supporter of Rev. Barber and asked him to do a revival at her church. He took over the Poor People’s Campaign from Jesse Jackson — with his blessing — after (Jackson) had taken it over from Dr. King. Both of them spoke at her funeral, which was just a year ago,” the producer points out.
At the Kennedy Center screening Monday night, “Rev. Barber and myself will be talking about the movie and gospel music.” But at the press conference and subsequent events in cities around the country where “Amazing Grace” will screen, “the focus will be on the five interlocking injustices — systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and lastly, the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.”
If that agenda sounds like it skews toward one political party, Elliott says that “as a 501c, the Poor People’s Campaign is interdenominational. We’ve asked a lot of different Republicans to come be a part of this, also. We hope they’ll show up. When we went to go premiere the film in New York City last year, Lorne Michaels had me sit next to Dan Crenshaw’s family, so we’ve asked Crenshaw to be a part of the events. We’ll see what happens, but we’re about the policy, not the party.”
Part of the idea, Elliott says, is that anyone who registers to vote during these weekends gets a free ticket to the movie — with some being held in theaters and some in churches or meeting halls — although already-registered voters won’t be turned away.
The “big landing” of the tour, he says, will be June 20, 2020, when the Poor People’s Campaign has permits for a march on Washington.
Elliott says the idea was sparked after a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. “Oprah was a big fan of the movie and called and asked me what the agenda was. I said the agenda was the Poor People’s Campaign. She knew everything there was to know about ‘Amazing Grace’ — it was pretty startling — but she didn’t know about Rev. Barber at that level, beyond watching him on MSNBC. So I’ve made it my mission to make sure we were bringing him into show business, as it were, and to really reflect Aretha’s politics through this lens.”
As for the expanded version of “Amazing Grace,” the producer says, “We’re excited to be working with Neon on a longer version of the movie, with intermission, that we will hopefully premiere next year around her birthday, March 25.”
There wasn’t that much material on the original 1972 “Amazing Grace” album that didn’t have a correspondent number in the finally released 2018 concert movie, but, says Elliott: “It’s a much different film. It has different versions of songs from different nights [the film was shot over two nights in 1972], and it also has ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ [Franklin’s gospel interpretation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic] and ‘God Will Take Care of You’ as two extra songs.”
The intended spring reissue will also include a filmed preamble from Rev. Barber that Elliott had filmed for the documentary’s showing at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend.