Finally filled a gap in my film experience with a viewing of Hallelujah, directed by King Vidor in 1929. It’s another Rorschach test for viewers, who will see any number of things in this second all-black-cast film (and first all-black-cast musical).
Sound was still new, and technically, things are rough. Dialogue is difficult to hear at times, and the sound quality is uneven at best. The quick Hollywood studio style of editing hadn’t arrived, and the film is first stagey, then too slow, then too abrupt. Some of the images retain the beauty of the best of silent film compositions and photography, however, and are lovely to behold.
The experience of Hallelujah is likely to provoke several things these days. The film opens with an apology and a condemnation for the film’s evocation of blacks. For folks with little sense of history or film history, it’s probably best to have that disclaimer. But they might have also added “and Christians” to their disassociation.
Yet while the film might be found insulting to blacks, Christians and black Christians, it’s actually quite respectful once the story begins. The first few scenes are admittedly embarrassing and condescending, but once the plot takes off, genuine respect rather than ridicule is the rule. And here is where the questions get thought-provoking: Is the director making fun of the stereotypical “wide-eyed” black or is that just the last gasp of the melodramatic school of acting that hadn’t yet adjusted to the changes sound would bring to acting? How close are those church scenes to a typical black service of the time and place?
As a white modern Christian, I wouldn’t presume to know, so that means I can’t judge the presentation even while my modern perspectives make me alternatively challenged, amused, horrified, and curious (and often several of these at the same time). It’s tempting to dismiss this as a more modern-day sound version of the kind of the thinking behind Birth of a Nation, but that’s a lazy approach. The legendary Vidor (nominated for Best Director for the film) didn’t have the deep-seated racist sensibility of Griffith, and he’s trying to tell a story and create a world at the same time here. It’s much easier to dismiss this as old-fashioned, racist pap. That would be a big mistake. It’s deeper, richer, and far more complex and beautiful than that. And there are moments of genuine ache
Beyond the socio-political implications, there is a huge “what could have been” factor with this film. Daniel L. Haynes, the lead who made a few other films, has a magnificent singing voice that’s an utter joy to hear. He’s a decent actor, and completely commanded the screen. Why didn’t we see more of him? More attention has been paid to the young Nina Mae McKinney, who later became known as “The Black Garbo.” She was 16 or 17 when the film was made, which makes her romantic scenes with the 39-year-old Haynes a little unsettling in retrospect, but that’s not much different from the two leads of Singin’ in the Rain. McKinney became a popular singer and actress, and she was quite lovely. Unhappily, bad health prevented her from taking what could have been her star-making role in The Duke is Tops, which made Lena Horne a star instead. How sad that the Hollywood of the time didn’t have a place for a talent like this outside of all-black films and shorts.
One delight in the film is seeing the young and unbilled Nicholas Brothers. If you remember them only as adults, seeing them here is quite a shock. They later made some musical shorts with McKinney, and those shorts provide us with a view of their incredible and developing talents while still adolescents.
The church scenes are both wondrous and strange. The world we see sometimes seems alien and unable to be related to, while at other times we feel that we’re taking a trip back in time to an extraordinary communal spiritual experience. Sometimes faith in the film is as cultural as the chitlins that Mom keeps cooking. At other times, it’s simple, real, and profound. In either case, faith isn’t presented as it so often is today—something reserved for the simple and uneducated, or the first manifestation of a pathology.
Hallelujah is unlike any other film as the result of its being a musical with an all-black cast, made at the onset of sound film by a respectful but still white director and featuring a cast of “should have beens” instead of has-beens. It belongs in several categories at once, including its own. A group discussion after a viewing would be fascinating for its intensity and breadth of issues inspired by the film.