Another review from Judge Jesse Ataide? Hallelujah!
"I can't go wrong, I must go right
The difficulty with King Vidor's Hallelujah is to know how to approach it. Should one be appalled by the endless stereotypes of African Americans this film introduced to the cinema, or simply be impressed that a film like this was made at all?
In 1929, two films featuring all-black casts were released in American theaters. The first, Hearts in Dixie, was quickly followed by Hallelujah. The former film has been completely forgotten. Hallelujah, however, has managed to stand the test of time despite its somewhat troubled reputation, establishing itself as Hollywood's first great African American film—a good indication that there's something in Vidor's film that transcends its stereotyped surface.
Facts of the Case
Billed as a musical (though the music is pretty limited to a single sublime rendition of Berlin's "Waiting at the End of the Road"), Hallelujah is better described as an old-fashioned morality tale: the oft-told story of a good man who sacrifices everything for the loose woman he can't help but fall in love with. While selling his the family's cotton crop in town, Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) finds himself enamored by Chick (Nina Mae McKinney, Pinky), a beautiful, flirtatious flapper who subsequently cheats him of his family's yearly earning. The incident causes Zeke to turn to religion, but he fails to learn his lesson the first time around. Upon crossing paths with Chick again several years later, he gives up a successful pastorate, a tight-knit family, and the good woman who loves him to run away with the bad girl who incites his passion.
As I mentioned in the opening, it's hard to know exactly how to approach Hallelujah, a film rampant with hurtful stereotypes that African Americans are still struggling to deal with today. The film opens with images (later immortalized by Gone with the Wind) of field hands happily singing as they pick the cotton, which quickly gives way to a scene around the dinner table complete with spontaneous singing and dancing. The potential offensiveness of the requisite Mammy character, the tap-dancing children and the "tragic mulatto" storyline can be downplayed easily enough; more difficult to justify are images of the leering black man not in control of his sexual urges or the underlying idea that blacks are susceptible to violent behavior.
On the other hand, it's undeniable that many positive images of African American life can be found in the film as well. The strong sense of family and community pervades the film from beginning to end, and as is the case with Hattie McDaniel in her Oscar-winning role in Gone with the Wind, Mammy (here played by Fanny Belle DeKnight) is a tremendously warm and sympathetic character that manages to delve into the humanity beneath the stereotypes. Christian devotion is also a theme running throughout the film, and Hallelujah does an excellent job of portraying the vibrancy of African American religious culture (best demonstrated in a spectacular baptism scene shot on location).
It's easy to chastise King Vidor (director of such films as Stella Dallas, Duel in the Sun and The Fountainhead) for failing to portray a more progressive view of African American life, but as revered black scholar Donald Bogle reveals in his commentary, Vidor, a white male, was very invested in this film on a personal level. Growing up in the South, he had been fascinated by African American culture and had always had the idea of using his memories in a film. But, despite the cultural impact of the Harlem Renaissance, Vidor struggled to convince the Hollywood studios to allow him to bring to the screen a portrayal of the black experience. Only after directing several successful silent films like The Big Parade and The Crowd was Vidor able to get a studio to back him, and even then, he gave up his salary to get the film made. But according to Bogle, Vidor was always proud of his work in Hallelujah, and always considered it one of the best films he ever directed.
The cast of Hallelujah is made up entirely of actors with little or no acting experience, and on that count alone, Hallelujah is a rather remarkable film. Though it certainly has moments of awkward and clumsy acting, the main cast is overall able to convey a real human presence, which is certainly one of the film's greatest strengths.
But without a doubt the real star of the film is Nina Mae McKinney, whose performance as Chick was considered by many original reviewers (both black and white) as a revelation—her sexy, sensual portrayal of the "yellow hussy" brought her rave reviews, and established her reputation as the first woman of color to make any kind of impression on Hollywood. She can also be seen as the first in a line of a light-skinned (i.e. "conventionally beautiful") black women—stretching from Dorothy Dandridge to Halle Berry—who have been idolized in American cinema.
Hallelujah continues Warner Brother's precedent of general excellence in presenting DVDs of classic films to the public. Granted, there's a lot lacking in the image quality of this film, which is plagued by flickering, scratches, white lines (during some outdoor scenes it almost looks like it's raining) and an occasional green tint, but considering the age of the film, the image quality is still very strong. The audio is likewise weak, but when it is taken into consideration that Hallelujah was one of the first sound films ever made, its shortcomings are easily overlooked. Short of a massive and painstaking restoration, I can't imagine this film looking or sounding much better than it is.
The most important and useful extra on this disc is undoubtedly the commentary by Bogle (with occasional interjections by Avery Clayton), which manages to dispense both general (biographies, historical and social context) and scene-specific information (like pointing out Hattie McDaniel's brother in a bit part) that does a very good job of weighing both the positive and negative aspects of this film as seen by a modern viewer. The other extras include two short films (Pie, Pie Blackbird and The Black Network) starring Nina Mae McKinney and the Nicholas Brothers, which provide further proof of McKinney's star quality, but also attests to the fact her performance in Hallelujah was the height of her sporadic career. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.
To modern eyes and ears, Hallelujah may not be as progressive or technically refined as we'd prefer, but within a historical context it's an invaluable film, and can be rather entertaining besides.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Feature Commentary by Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton
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