Sunday, September 6, 2009

Hallelujah! (King Vidor) **1/2

King Vidor

Cast: Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, William E. Fountaine, Harry Gray, Fannie Belle de Knight

Background: King Vidor had wanted to make this film for many years, and finally jumped at the chance with the advent of talkies. The project was so important to him that he gave up his salary to make it. It would be one of the first all-black films made by a major studio.

Story: Sharecropper Zeke (Haynes) gets set up for a rigged craps game by con artist Chick (McKinney). He decides to reform by devoting his life to God and becoming a minister. However, a chance encounter with Chick threatens to ruin everything he has rebuilt.

Thoughts: This film proves that Hollywood had come a long way from Birth of a Nation, but also proves that they hadn't yet come far enough. It's certainly admirable for Vidor to have attempted a film with an all black cast. Unfortunately, the film is littered with problems and the end result just doesn't add up. The characters speak in a very stereotypical way, and even Vidor himself admitted that his overall view of African-American life was (unintentionally) very condescending. Much of the film consists of the characters standing around singing spirituals. But the problems don't end there. The storytelling leaves much to be desired. The film drags throughout the second act, and the disturbing actions taken by Zeke in the third act are all too easily wiped away by the ending. What almost saves the movie is the dynamic performance by Nina Mae McKinney. Not only does she play an electrifying femme fatale, she has several show stopping musical numbers. More of those and fewer spiritual singalongs would have made this a much, much better movie.

Postscript: King Vidor received an Oscar nomination for this film. Nina Mae McKinney struggled to find good roles in the ensuing years, as other directors were not willing to follow Vidor's lead in attempting positive views of African-American life. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 2008.

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