Hallelujah! is a 1929 American Pre-Code Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical directed by King Vidor, and starring Daniel L. Haynes and Nina Mae McKinney.
Filmed in Tennessee and Arkansas and chronicling the troubled quest of a sharecropper, Zeke Johnson (Haynes), and his relationship with the seductive Chick (McKinney), Hallelujah was one of the first all-black films by a major studio. It was intended for a general audience and was considered so risky a venture by MGM that they required King Vidor to invest his own salary in the production. Vidor expressed an interest in "showing the Southern Negro as he is" and attempted to present a relatively non-stereotyped view of African-American life.
Hallelujah! was King Vidor's first sound film, and combined sound recorded on location and sound recorded post-production in Hollywood. King Vidor was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the film.
In 2008, Hallelujah! was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Years before creating Hallelujah!, King Vidor had longed to make a film employing an all-Black cast. He had floated the idea around for years but “the studio kept turning the idea down”. Vidor’s luck would change come 1928, when while he is in Europe promoting his film, The Crowd, he catches wind of the emergence of audible motion pictures sweeping the nation. This was important because he was very enthusiastic about the idea of having an all-Black cast singing “negro spirituals” on the silver screen, after he had seen the success of it on Broadway. Vidor stated, “If stage plays with all negro casts, and stories like those by Octavus Roy Cohen and others, could have such great success, why shouldn’t the screen make a successful negro play?”. Vidor was able to convince Nicholas Schenck, who was the president of MGM at the time, to get the movie made by framing it more as a film that depicted the African American’s sexual deviance. Schenck put it simply to Vidor, “Well, if you think like that, I’ll let you make a picture about whores”. Vidor received the inspiration to create this film based on real incidents he witnessed as a child during his time at home in the south, where he would observe Black folks. He went on to say, “I used to watch the negroes in the South, which was my home. I studied their music, and I used to wonder at the pent-up romance in them”. Vidor began shooting in Arkansas, Memphis and Southern California at the MGM studios.
Sharecroppers Zeke and Spunk Johnson sell their part of the cotton crop for $100. Cheated out of the money by Zeke's girlfriend Chick (16-year-old Nina Mae McKinney), in collusion with her gambling-hustler friends, Spunk is murdered in the ensuing brawl. Zeke runs away and reforms his life, becoming a minister.
Sometime later, he returns and preaches a rousing revival. Now engaged to a virtuous maiden named Missy (Victoria Spivey), he finds that Chick is still interested in him. She asks for baptism but is clearly not truly repentant. Tragically, Zeke throws away his new life for her. The film then cuts to Zeke's new life; he is working at a log mill and is married to Chick, who is secretly cheating on him with her old flame, Hot Shot (William Fountaine).
When Chick and Hot Shot decide to cut and run just as Zeke finds out about the affair, Zeke follows after them. The carriage carrying both Hot Shot and Chick overturns, and Zeke catches up to them. Holding her in his arms, he watches Chick die as she apologizes to him for being unable to change her ways. Zeke then chases Hot Shot on foot. He stalks slowly through the woods and swamp while Hot Shot tries to run but continues to stumble until Zeke finally kills him. The film ends with Zeke returning to his family at the cotton crop after serving time in prison. His family is more than happy to welcome him back into the flock.Daniel L. Haynes as Zeke
Nina Mae McKinney as Chick
William E. Fountaine as Hot Shot
Harry Gray as Parson
Fannie Belle de Knight as Mammy
Everett McGarrity as Spunk
Victoria Spivey as Missy Rose
Milton Dickerson as Johnson Kid
Robert Couch as Johnson Kid
Walter Tait as Johnson Kid
Dixie Jubilee Singers
The film gives, in some sections, a remarkably authentic representation of black entertainment and religious music in the 1920s, which no other film achieves, though some of the sequences are rather Europeanised and over-arranged. For example, the outdoor revival meeting, with the preacher singing and acting out the "Train to hell," is entirely authentic in style until the end, where he launches into the popular song "Waiting at the End of the Road." Similarly, an outdoor group of workers near the beginning of the film are singing a choral arrangement of "Way Down Upon the Swanee River" (written by Stephen Foster, who never went anywhere near the South). Supposedly, according to Vidor himself in an interview given to the New York Times, “while Stephen Foster and others were inspired by hearing negro songs on the levees, their music was not at all of the negro type.” He went on to add that Foster’s music had “the distinct finish and technique of European music, possibly of German Origin.”
A sequence which is of vital importance in the history of classic jazz is in the dancehall, where Nina Mae McKinney performs Irving Berlin's "Swanee Shuffle." Although actually filmed in a New York studio using black actors, the sequence gives an accurate representation of a low-life black dance-hall - part of the roots of classic jazz. Nothing else on film comes near this: most Hollywood films sanitized black music out of all recognition; and later, in the 1930s, when black artists began to show their real styles, jazz had moved on to become more sophisticated and the whole style of behavior had changed.
The soundtrack throughout the film is a remarkable achievement, given the primitive equipment available at the time, with a much wider range of editing and mixing techniques than is generally thought to have been used so early on in talkies.
Hallelujah was commercially and critically successful. Photoplay praised the film for its depiction of African Americans and commented on the cast: "Every member of Vidor's cast is excellent. Although none of them ever worked before a camera or a microphone before, they give unstudied and remarkably spontaneous performances. That speaks a lot for Vidor's direction." The New York Times spoke highly of the all-Black cast, stating, “Hallelujah!, with its clever negro cast, is one of the few talking pictures that is really a separate and distinct form of entertainment from a stage play”. The combination of two groundbreaking aspects of the film, audible dialogue and an all-Black cast, really set the movie apart from its contemporaries. Some of the critiques of the film spoke volumes to the particular spirit of the times, and would likely be vastly different today. For example, in the New York Times, Morduant Hall writes about how “in portraying the peculiarly typical religious hysteria of the darkies and their gullibility, Mr. Vidor atones for any sloth in preceding scenes.” It is important to note that at that point in history, this film was one of the early projects that gave Blacks significant roles in a movie and had “a freshness and truth that was not attained again for thirty years”.
Although revered in its innovative production style and inclusion of an all-Black cast, history later revealed the negative implications which would follow in the coming years. Due to its grossly stereotypical roles and portrayal of the African American, the film only really helped to contribute to the culture of diminishing the Black person’s experience. According to Kevin K. Gaines at the University of Michigan, “Guided by southern apologists for lynching (the execution of persons without benefit of trial by mobs), many whites, regardless of income or education, viewed the aspirations of black men and women through the warped lens of crude racial and sexual stereotypes that accused all blacks of criminality and immorality.” This lens of racial and sexual stereotypes was amplified in movies such as Vidor’s Hallelujah!, and even received disdain from Paul Roebeson (who was originally asked to play the role of Zeke but he turned it down), who reportedly “loathed” the movie, according to historian Scott Eyman. Furthermore, it is believed that the film’s, “reputation is based largely on the fact that it was made at all”. Also, one of the more famous of the 1920s among African American actresses, Nina Mae McKinney, had a notable performance in that it was the first known instance of the “black whore” to be utilized on screen. This display only went on to set forth a legacy illustrating, “Black women (as) money grabbers, connivers and vamps”