King Vidor’s Hallelujah! isn’t easy. But it’s essential.
Before getting into why it’s such an important film to watch during Black History Month, take a minute with me and let’s do a bit of time traveling. (The flux capacitor is always fluxing around these here parts.)
Let’s go back 90 years. Say you’re a person of color in 1928, and you happen to live in a city with a strong black community. For sake of story (and because I’m a native Southern Californian), let’s say that city happens to be Los Angeles, CA, where the black community was not only vibrant in the ’20s but upwardly mobile– a place where a good job, a good education, and a good home were well within reach. Chances are the average white Los Angeleno would not only be friendly, but welcoming to you: morally “on your side,” so to speak, but forbidden by Jim Crow segregation to really do anything about it socially.
You would have seen the glittering lights of 1920s Hollywood with all its shimmery excess: the romantic, larger-than-life movie palaces that peppered the city from Downtown to Hollywood and beyond. The dramatic box office posters picturing god-like creatures named Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks. The magazines waxing poetic over their fantastic wealth and opulent lifestyles in magazines. And you’d definitely catch the spotlights shooting high into the Hollywood skies announcing yet another gala movie premiere.
But you were not allowed to participate.
Oh sure, you could sit in the colored sections of the movie palaces. But if you were ambitious enough to want a job in “the business,” you wouldn’t make the rounds at casting agencies around town like your white counterparts. Instead, you’d probably mingle near the beautiful, newly opened Somerville Hotel (soon to become the legendary Dunbar Hotel), a beating center of the black community on Central Avenue (Los Angeles’ own “Little Harlem”) on the chance that a Hollywood scout would cruise by. The scouts would often do just that, knowing that’s where they’d find the best looking people, even though they were mainly interested in inviting them to the studio for bit parts as natives in jungle movies. (source: Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black)
Because if you were to see a person of color in any of these Hollywood movies, they’d be a clown–a jester–put there for White America to laugh at, condescendingly. And much of the time, the actors weren’t actually black–blackface was a strong, steady practice throughout the entirety of the 1920s.
Mandatory side note: The one semi-exception to this rule was Hal Roach’s Our Gang series. Roach’s beloved series kicked off in 1922, featuring an interracial cast of disaster-prone, buffoonish but lovable tots, including black children: Sunshine Sammy, Pineapple, Farina and, of course later on, Buckwheat. While they were still very much the Jim Crow “Picaninny” stereotype with their tightly twisted pigtails and fetish for watermelon and fried chicken, the refreshingly optimistic difference is that they weren’t treated as second class citizens among their fellow children. For whatever reason, Hal Roach’s Our Gang kids live in a egalitarian society–even if that society is filled with fellow misfits and only extends as far as their baseball fields and barnyards.
What all this means, and the point I’m trying to make, is that more than 15 years after D.W. Griffith introduced narrative cinema in 1915’s groundbreaking The Birth of a Nation — and incited a revival of hatred against African Americans — the black experience had been relegated to either demeaning roles as simpletons, or off the mainstream entirely: in the shadowy recesses of no-budget, independent cinema.
(An outstanding, comprehensive collection of these early films is available from Kino Lorber, entitled Pioneers of African American Cinema— it’s a necessary addition to any serious film historian’s library. If you’re not ready to invest in the set, it’s also streaming on Netflix.)
But black cinema had grown into its own unique art form: the result of guts, grit, and sheer will. Lacking the shimmer and shine of studio films, the work of the first African American filmmakers, like the great Oscar Micheaux, are raw and real. Just like the jazz music its culture created, the black cinema of the early 20th century does not play by the establishment’s rules. They were mavericks– the first “independent” filmmakers in film history.
Kino Lorber’s Bret Wood puts it this way:
“Micheaux used to raise money for his films by pre-selling bookings at theaters. It’s very much like crowd-funding… getting the money in advance for a film that is yet-to-be-made. And one of the many beauties of the films is that, being produced outside of Hollywood, and not intended for screening in the mainstream theaters, they were seldom subjected to the censorship of the Production Code. It’s almost as though the filmmakers thought, “the white censors will never see this; white audiences will never see this; so we can do whatever we want.”
We have already established that there was no place in mainstream white cinema for race pictures, and certainly no money in it. But with the advent of sound, things changed.
What’s fascinating is that the film that made talkies an overnight sensation, The Jazz Singer, may embody all of the old minstrel tropes with Al Jolson’s signature “Mammy” in all its blackface absurdity, but its also responsible for giving black actors a voice. Stymied by the silents, talking pictures created opportunities–both negative and positive–for actors of color.
As black film historian Donald Bogle writes,
“From the start, Hollywood was aware that talking movies needed sound–music, rhythm, pizzazz, singing, dancing, clowning. And who, according to American myth, were more rhythmic or more musical than Negroes? No sooner had the talkies come into vogue than two major studios, Fox and MGM, operating on just such a premise, set out to put all that ole-time nacthel rhythm on dazzling display. The end results of their labors were Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah.”
We’re not going to touch Hearts in Dixie here. That’s a whole other, even more difficult, blog post.
Instead, we’re going to look at director King Vidor’s Hallelujah. Here are three reasons why Hallelujah! is one of the most important films you’ll ever see, and why you absolutely need to watch it during Black History Month.
#1. It’s A Miracle the Film Was Even Made
First thing to make clear is that Hallelujah is a white man’s vision of a black world. If you go into it without that crucial understanding, the film will be lost to you. At the same time, the film would not have happened at all if it hadn’t been for director King Vidor’s stubborn determination to make an all-black picture. Vidor, who would go on to be a founding member and first president of The Directors Guild of America, had made some highly popular films during the silent era (most notably The Crowd and Show People, both 1928) and his sound career would be just as, if not more, successful. (You have him to thank for Stella Dallas, Duel in the Sun, and The Fountainhead among many.) He’d also been obsessed with making an all black picture for years. This was his passion project and when The Jazz Singer and talkies took Hollywood by storm, he knew the time was right. He believed in it so much, in fact, that after years of pitching it and being turned down, he decided to invest his own money into the production.
Promoted as an all-black, all-talkie musical, Hallelujah! is an operatic tragedy that chronicles the rise and fall of a poor black sharecropper (Daniel Haines) who swings between the temptations of the flesh (at the mercy of bombshell Nina Mae McKinney) and the salvation of the Lord. Hallelujah! is not an easy watch, and it is a very deep investment; I would not recommend watching on a whim, unless you have proper contextual guidance, as it is easy to misinterpret the film without it. That’s why black film historian Donald Bogle’s commentary is absolutely critical: appearing on the Warner Archive MOD version, it provides contextual background behind the actors (Daniel Haynes was a college graduate from Morris Brown in Atlanta) the production (King Vidor had to put up his own salary to convince MGM to make the film) and the cultural complexities the film represents (McKinney is light skinned and keen featured, setting the standard for mainstream black beauty for everyone from Dorothy Dandridge to Halle Berry).
#2: It Stars the First Ever African American Movie Star
Even though, admittedly, there are holdovers from Birth of a Nation here — Zeek can be seen as a sexual predator, conflicted though he is; the sharecroppers take their paychecks and go straight to shooting craps — Vidor definitely achieves a number of firsts. In gorgeous Nina Mae McKinney (that’s ‘nine-uh’ not ‘neen-uh’), we see the birth of the first ever African American movie star; her lustful, wicked city woman “Chick” is the first time a black woman had ever been allowed to be seen as a sex object in mainstream film.
It would be a rarity for the next several decades for Hollywood to depict black women accepted as beautiful, strong women (they preferred them dowdy and subservient), but Nina Mae was the first. And wow, what a force of nature she is. Just watch her in action. The hottest of hot jazz baby dolls:
The response to her from black and white critics was unanimous. Irving Thalberg was so excited by her, he called her one of “the greatest discoveries of the age” and she was signed to a 5 year contract. The reality, however, was the there was no room for a leading black actress in Hollywood. As Bogle writers, “She was the first black actress to learn, as Dorothy Dandridge discovered thirty years later, that there were no leading roles for black ladies. All Hallelujah secured for her were minor film roles and a handful of appearances in obscure shorts.” Like Josephine Baker before her, McKinney found Europe to be much more receptive and spent the majority of her career performing abroad.
Vidor was able to– in spite of the stereotypes– give a dignity to black family life and humanity to the African American experience on the whole. There is one extraordinary, sweeping, epic sequence of lamentation, in which Vidor brings the black Spiritual to screen with overpowering emotion. His close-ups, cutting to moments of intense grief, for nearly a ten-minute stretch, suspend time, achieving an almost cinema-verite quality.
Bottom line: If you remember the fact that, prior to Hallelujah!, the only time African Americans appeared as main characters in mainstream white cinema it was as villainous rapists and drunks in Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation, Vidor’s film achieves a major milestone. For all its tired tropes, the characters possess emotional depth and human complexity; for the first time ever in mainstream cinema, African Americans were allowed to be seen as human beings.
Buy Hallelujah! now, available from the Warner Archive Collection and on sale at TCM Shop.
** This piece originally appeared on Warner Archive News and has been updated.