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Stay Prayed Up

The only thing mightier than Lena Mae Perry’s electrifying voice is her faith. She’s spent the last 50 years sharing and sharpening both as the steadfast bandleader of The Branchettes, a legendary North Carolina gospel group that has packed churches throughout the South and lifted weary hearts as far away as Ireland. STAY PRAYED UP is a spirited celebration, inviting audiences into “Mother” Perry’s close-knit community as the 82-year-old strives to extend The Branchettes’ sacred song ministry ever forward. The film follows The Branchettes as they record their first, fully live album, a hallmark in the canon of Black gospel groups. Health concerns with long-time, long-fingered pianist and friend Wilbur Tharpe underscore the importance of “capturing the spirit” for producer Phil Cook, a white Wisconsin-born gospel enthusiast and musical polyglot half of Perry’s age. Through shared prayer, laughter and praise, this “church gospel noisy crew” demonstrates that music, like faith, ain’t nothing without some fire inside.

  • D.L. Anderson
    Farmer/Veteran, You Gave Me A Song
  • Matt Durning
    Perry County
  • Mikel Barton
  • Lena Mae Williams
  • Phil Cook
  • Leslie Raymond
  • Shirlette Ammons
    Impact Producer
    A Chef's Life, Somewhere South, The Hook
  • Lena May Perry
    Key Cast
  • Vittles Films
    Executive Producer
    Farmer/Veteran, The Seeds We Keep
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    Concert Doc, US South
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 13 minutes 43 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    August 17, 2021
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital HD
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Telluride Film Festival
    Telluride, CO
    United States
    September 5, 2021
    World Premiere
    Official Selection
  • New Orleans Film Festival
    New Orleans, LA
    United States
    November 5, 2021
    Official Selection
  • Heartland Film Festival
    United States
    October 17, 2021
    Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award
  • Virginia Film Festival
    United States
    October 30, 2021
    Best Documentary Feature Audience Award
  • Cucalorus Film Festival
    United States
    November 13, 2021
    North Carolina
    Official Selection
    New York
    United States
    November 14, 2021
    New York
    Official Selection
Distribution Information
  • Cinetic
    Sales Agent
    Country: Worldwide
    Rights: All Rights
  • Greenwich Entertainment
    Country: United States
    Rights: All Rights
Director Biography - D.L. Anderson, Matt Durning

Co-Director D.L. Anderson has directed, edited and produced over 20 doc shorts and a feature documentary, FARMER/VETERAN (www.farmerveteran.com), which premiered on PBS’s Independent Lens and has won numerous festival awards. Anderson is the Creative Director at Vittles Films (www.vittles.us) in Durham, North Carolina.

Co-Director Matt Durning has directed, shot and produced documentary features and TV series for HBO, ESPN, PBS FRONTLINE/World, Smithsonian Channel, Ovation TV, and Al Jazeera America. Durning's short documentary, PERRY COUNTY, won numerous festival awards and was a finalist for the IDA David L. Wolper Award for Best Student Documentary in 2010. Durning produced the original YouTube doc series PRODIGIES (on the THNKR channel) which has received over 50 million views.

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Director Statement

The power of Gospel music, prayer and spirituality is really about presence, or the ability to be in touch with a sense of the infinite. This belief is what drew us into the expansive ministry of Mother Lena Mae Perry. Her voice as a bandleader with The Branchettes, is the most apparent, awesome form of her presence. It shakes and reawakens a sense of wonder without fail. How is this small, slight, elderly woman singing with such strength and sureness? It is, like faith, hard to comprehend. And it also embodies many forms; carried into loving community, in quiet, steadfast devotion, in shared prayer and through devastating loss. It is both profound and simple. It is why we made this film and the reason we managed to make it at all.

We are both at a middle age in our lives, with growing families and complicated relationships with organized religion. We struggle with doubt and deadlines and, like a lot of humans, are moving through the world trying to find something to believe in; failing that, at least something to eat. The first time we sat down with Mother Perry and Phil Cook to discuss the idea of film it was around a meal — Smithfield’s Chicken & BBQ for inquiring Southerners. We bowed our heads in prayer, for the first time in a while, and we listened to Mother Perry’s unique, poetic cadence. “It’s me again Lord.” We both felt a shift in time and a deeper sense of ease as familiar as it was surprising. The Irish poet and theologian John O'Donohue once said that, “prayer is a practice and being unpracticed means being more desperate for it.” This shift in our presence would be a guiding sensibility and question for Stay Prayed Up. We knew the film would be driven by a dynamic concert experience, but how could we also center this simple, steadfast spiritual practice of Mother Perry in a way that speaks to those who are desperate to hear it, regardless of their faith or background?

Mother Perry has a real straight line approach to her ministry and her life, which are truly one in the same. She does not deviate from her path, nor will she be moved. From a storytelling perspective, that can seem like a challenge in presenting a compelling narrative. But we both saw this straightforward nature as her unique strength, especially if placed within a community navigating the unknowns of life and the larger inequalities of a society that this sacred music serves to heal and uplift. We, as White filmmakers working within a Black sacred space, also knew that we needed to own and properly account for the historic power dynamic that exists in that relationship and develop an approach to trouble it. Michele Lanier, an AfroCarolinan folklorist, oral historian and colleague, helped guide an accountability process that included sharing ownership of the film with Mother Perry and inviting her daughter, Lena Williams, on as a Producer. Careful consideration was also made in the post process to ensure that Phil, a White musician from Wisconsin, was not presented as an authority on Southern Black Gospel culture. It has not been a perfect process, but we continue to listen, we continue in service to a story that began long before us, and we continue to trust in the relations, love and honesty at the center.

In the midst of a global pandemic and a personal health crisis, we struggled mightily to move this film forward. Mother Perry would say there was no need to fuss. “It’ll work itself out,” was her common refrain. It was comforting to hear, but challenging to take to heart because there was still so much to be done and so many unknowns. Mother Perry, in her age and wisdom, was offering us the gift of a deeper faith; yielding to something outside of our control in order to return to a place of infinite presence within. We hope Stay Prayed Up can be an invitation to a profoundly beautiful spiritual practice; reawakening our immense ability to be with and show up for one another in real presence. It is all we have and it is enough.

— D.L. Anderson & Matt Durning