Hallelujah (1929; dir. King Vidor) is the earliest sound-era film featuring an all-black cast I have encountered. Released in 1929, it is crudely made by current standards, with poor editing, acting, sound quality, and cinematography. By 1929 standards, however, it would have been close to state of the art. Hallelujah is about an African American cotton-farming family somewhere in the deep south, possibly Mississippi, since a town named Greenwood is mentioned. We see scenes of the family working happily in the cotton field and eating together at home. At the center of the film is a young man named Zeke. He is hard-working and responsible, but several scenes give us to know that he is full of sexual desire that is hard for him to repress. One day he and his younger brother take the cotton they have harvested to town and sell it for a hundred dollars. Zeke comes across a young woman, Chick, dancing before a crowd of men. He's attracted to her and doesn’t realize that she is probably a prostitute. When he tries to get her attention, she rebuffs him until she learns he has money. At a local honky-tonk, she connives with a gambler, probably her pimp, to convince Zeke to gamble his earnings. When he loses the money, he blames the gambler. A fight ensues, and Zeke accidentally shoots his brother to death. At his brother’s funeral, the guilt-stricken Zeke sees the light, becomes a peachier who begins touring the local countryside under the name of Zekial, preaching to the brethren. Apparently as a way of channeling his sexual urges, he also marries a young woman who lives with his family. But Chick tracks him down and after mocking him at an outdoor service she claims to be converted. Zeke is still attracted to her, and they run away together. Six months later she leaves with the gambler. Zeke realizes he's been duped and tracks the pimp down in a local swamp and kills him. Zeke goes to jail and, on release, returns home where his family awaits.
Hallelulah opens and closes with the iconic image of blacks toiling away happily in the cotton fields. They talk freely with each other, joking playfully, giving no sense that picking cotton in the hot summer fields is hard work. We’ve seen this image often in films of the 1930s and 40s—in So Red the Rose, Mississippi, Gone with the Wind, and Song of the South, for example. One might argue that because this film focuses exclusively on black characters, with white people nowhere in evidence, that its intent is to celebrate African American life. We see the family life, community socializing and worship, and much singing. We also see how Zeke and his family work hard and successfully at raising cotton and then taking it to market where they sell it for a good price.
Could Hallelujah be an early expression of respect and appreciation for African Americans?
That might be the intention, but not the result. The film carefully and inexorably undermines the positive image of independent black farmers and rich, hearty family gatherings by reifying all the basic racist stereotypical notions about African Americans expressed in the opening image. While Zeke can grow a field of cotton and bring it to harvest, lust and alcohol and poor judgment induce him to gamble it away. When he feels shame for his actions and becomes an evangelist, he is clearly impressed by the popularity he enjoys. Although his conversion seems sincere, the film treats his career as an evangelist with humor. However pious he might be, he’s easily lured away from a revival service by desire for Chick. The film seems to equate religious mania in African Americans with sexual desire, suggesting that Chick and Zeke can’t see the difference and can’t control their impulses. And after serving his time in the local penitentiary for the gambler’s murder, Zeke returns home to his family and to his wife Mattie—he’s welcomed with open arms and little hesitation, the suggestion being that he is just a man, a black man for all that, susceptible to temptation and passion, and therefore deserving of forgiveness. Chick is not much different in this regard than Zeke. She’s not only a woman—vulnerable to, as this film would have it, temptation and eager to lure men to sins of the flesh—but also a black woman, which in this film means weaker, more sensual, more corruptible still.
The temptations to which Zeke falls victim could as easily have brought down a white protagonist. But this film--with its African American cast that strives so fervently to present African American life--is making a general statement about the perceived qualities and defects of African American character. On the farm, working in the fields, eating and funning around with family and friends, African Americans are safe and carefree. In the city, the lures of temptation along with their naturally weak morals and strong passions will bring them down. No surprise, then, that the film ends with Zeke’s return home and with more images of the happy blacks in the fields picking cotton.
The two strongest actors in the film are Daniel Haynes as Zeke and Nina Mae McKinney as Chick. Haynes sings well. McKinney overacts, especially when she’s overcome with religious/sexual frenzy. Her primary trait is her eyes—which are unfortunately close to the bug eyes of the stereotype. A decade or two later, and certainly by the 1950s or 1960s, Haynes and McKinney might have had successful Hollywood careers, but Haynes appeared in only a few minor roles after this one, and McKinney played mostly minor parts until her last film in 1950.
While Hallelujah means to give a positive portrait of African-American life, the cultural and racial biases of its day limit its success.