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With: Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, William Fountaine, Harry Gray, Fanny Belle DeKnight, Everett McGarrity, Victoria Spivey, Milton Dickerson, Robert Couch, Walter Tait, Dixie Jubilee Singers
Written by: King Vidor, Wanda Tuchock, Ransom Rideout, Richard Schayer
Directed by: King Vidor
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 100
Date: 08/20/1929

Hallelujah (1929)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Black History

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

An early talkie musical set and filmed in Memphis, King Vidor's Hallelujah (1929, Warner Home Video, $19.98) horrifies immediately with its disgraceful stereotypes. Yet, as Warner says in its disclaimer, these images should be kept alive rather than hidden away so that we may learn from them.

The story focuses on a large, loving family of cotton pickers. One of the oldest sons, Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) meets and falls prey to a big city dance hall girl, Chick (Nina Mae McKinney). Like a femme fatale, her devilish influence drives him to despair, and he enters into a struggle for his soul.

Vidor (1894-1982) was already a veteran director with at least one blockbuster (The Big Parade) and one artistic masterpiece (The Crowd) under his belt before he took on Hallelujah. Inspired by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), he aimed to put together a film with documentary realism, mixed with classic storytelling. And he succeeded with his innovative use of sound in exterior spaces.

Yet Vidor's gaze can be condescendingly paternal. He watches as the characters succumb to bad behavior, as if they were simple-minded and unable to help themselves. (One character rolls her eyes around when she sees a wad of cash.) But Hallelujah definitely has a loving quality; we see the African-American families working, living and eating as families. And the film has several dazzling, energetic musical numbers as well.

Although they were prevalent behind the scenes, whites are nowhere to be seen in the film, and -- better or worse -- Hallelujah provides arguably the richest look at black culture the period had to offer. It was not a success, since the film could not be released in the Deep South, though it was reputed to have been a kind of cult classic in Paris.

DVD Details: Warner Home Video's DVD comes with a scholarly commentary track by Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton, two vintage shorts (both starring McKinney) and a trailer. Released in conjunction with Cabin in the Sky and The Green Pastures

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