#583) Hallelujah (1929)

#583) Hallelujah (1929)

OR “Zeke No Evil”

Directed by King Vidor

Written by Wanda Tuchock. Story by King Vidor, treatment by Richard Schayer, dialogue by Ransom Rideout.

Class of 2008

The Plot: Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) is a sharecropper who is able to sell his cotton crop for $100 (about $1500 today). Zeke loses all of it in a crap game against Hot Shot (William Fountaine), in cahoots with his girlfriend Chick (Nina Mae McKinney). When Zeke confronts Hot Shot, a fight ensues, leading to the murder of Zeke’s brother Spunk (Everett McGarrity). Traumatized by this tragic event, Zeke becomes a preacher, and starts a new life leading a revival tour. A few years later, Zeke runs into Chick and Hot Shot, and attempts to sway the pair to atone for their sins. Chick is tempted, but Zeke is equally tempted to leave his wife Missy Rose (Victoria Spivey) for Chick. All of this in one of the first major all-Black movies in American film history.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “among the very first indisputable masterpieces of the sound era”, praising its “passionate conviction of the melodrama” and “resourceful technical experiments”.

But Does It Really?: This is definitely in the “two steps forward, one step back” category of progressive films. Sure, by 1929 standards “Hallelujah” is a revolutionary and nuanced depiction of African-American life. By modern standards, however, it’s a difficult watch filled with Black characters that are either “happy slaves” or swindling con artists. That being said, “Hallelujah” crawled so that other, better movies could run. The film is deserving of its spot on the NFR, I just wouldn’t recommend it to a casual moviegoer.

Everybody Gets One: Just a few years away from becoming a big name in nightclubs in both America and Europe, Nina Mae McKinney was initially cast in a minor role in “Hallelujah”, but took over the part of Chick when original lead Honey Brown injured herself. McKinney’s subsequent film career (as well as a successful tour of Europe in the 1930s) earned her the nickname “Black Garbo”.

Wow, That’s Dated: I’m pretty sure I covered the film’s most dated aspect in the “But Does It Really?” section.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Hallelujah” was a hit in its day and received one Oscar nomination: Best Director for King Vidor (his second nomination). Due to the Oscar’s eligibility calendar that year (August 1929 to July 1930), Vidor lost to one of the biggest hits of 1930: “All Quiet on the Western Front“.

Other notes 

  • King Vidor had been trying to persuade MGM for years to let him make a movie about African-American life, but MGM always declined, stating that a film with an all-Black cast lacked box office appeal. Vidor finally got approval once he agreed to defer his salary, only receiving a percentage of the film’s grosses if it was successful. Vidor wrote the initial story outline himself, and travelled to Chicago and New York to find the best Black talent he could for “Hallelujah”.
  • “Hallelujah” began as a silent feature, but production went so well that MGM made it a sound feature mid-production, causing Vidor to reshoot much of the movie. For the Tennessee location shooting that would be too expensive to reshoot, early dubbing and synching technology was used.
  • It was made abundantly clear to me within the first few moments just how tough a watch this was going to be. The film’s opening sequences are Zeke and his family happily picking cotton in a field while singing spirituals. Are we supposed to be happy for them? Again, this is very progressive by 1929 standards because they have names and aren’t White actors in blackface.
  • Of course, the film’s major setback is that it was directed and conceived by a White Hungarian-American whose only experience with African-American life had been what he witnessed as a child in Galveston, Texas. Adding insult to injury, two of the “spirituals” in this movie were written by Irving Berlin!
  • Today on “Wow, That’s Becoming Dated”: Two of Zeke’s siblings are named Sears and Roebuck, after the department store that, as of this writing, is in the midsts of “a slow motion liquidation”, with only about 70 or so stores left.
  • As I’ve come to expect with early sound pictures, there’s a lot of jerky camera movement in “Hallelujah”. Sound cameras were bulky compared to the kind used for silent films, hence the awkward movement in films like this. Scenes initially shot silently stand out for their fluidity and more artistic compositions.
  • Shoutout to William Fountaine, who rewrote his own lines while playing Hot Shot, stating that he “wouldn’t be able to return to Harlem” if he spoke his stereotype-heavy dialogue as written.
  • I know they’re referring to the dice game, but it’s still weird hearing people in a ’20s movie say the word “craps”.
  • God this movie is such a downer. At least none of the Black stereotypes in “Stormy Weather” got murdered halfway through.
  • “Hallelujah” would pair well with “Black and Tan” and/or “St. Louis Blues“, the two NFR shorts that also depict Black living in the late ’20s through popular songs. The film would also work as a double feature with “The Blood of Jesus” Spencer Williams’ religious-themed All-Black film, or “Body and Soul“, the Oscar Micheaux movie that also features a preacher with a dark past.
  • It was around hour fifteen of Zeke’s sermon that I was convinced this movie will feature every spiritual ever written. Hey, as long as you don’t have to pay for them, right? That being said, Zeke sure knows how to work a crowd. It helps that Daniel Haynes was a preacher in real life.
  • Chick has the best character arc in the show, and it’s a shame Nina Mae McKinney isn’t a better actor. She’s not bad, she just doesn’t have the range to pull off this character.
  • What a weird ending. Is the point that no one can truly change? Seems like a downer for this subject matter. Whatever the outcome, all I know is that Missy Rose deserves better.
  • There is a lot that could be unpacked regarding this film’s depiction of African-Americans, and the pros and cons of that depiction, but that is for somewhere more educated (and significantly less White) than I. Suffice it to say that there is a lot to learn from “Hallelujah”, and like so many of the movies on this list, there’s some homework that needs to be done to truly appreciate it. In the end, “Hallelujah” isn’t “Birth of a Nation” offensive, but it ain’t exactly “Moonlight” either.

Legacy 

  • “Hallelujah” had two New York premieres: one in lower Manhattan and one in Harlem. Both went well, and “Hallelujah” was well received by critics and audiences in its day. Following its initial run, “Hallelujah” has more or less become a movie solely for film academics; a stepping stone for more nuanced portrayal of Black life. Believe it or not, the film’s Wikipedia page is a good starting point to discuss this film’s depiction of race, citing critics with strong arguments on both sides of this film’s legacy.

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