Learn about Life in the 1920s

Primitive Emotions Aflame in the Negro Film - "Hallelujah"

HUNDREDS OF PLANTATION HANDS were gathered on the bank of a Southern river to take part in a scene of exhortation and baptism. Converts in white robes were marshaled in long lines to wait for the ecstatic privilege of wading out into midstream one by one, and receiving the baptismal rite. Meanwhile the evangelist, a prepossessing young negro with a resonant voice, appealed for more repentant sinners to approach the mercy seat. From his little platform he hurled exhortation and warning at the sea of dark faces before him, and suddenly an electrical response swept over them. Devout ejaculations burst from their lips, their bodies swayed in emotional sympathy, and their arms were tossed skyward.

ZEKE, THE STAR OF THE MOVIE HALLELUJAH The whole-hearted spontaneity of their response brought a look of keen delight to the face of a white man who brooded in the background with a megaphone in his hand. For these "colored folks" of town and country had been hired as movie extras, the young evangelist was the leading man of an Afro-American screen talkie, and the brooding white man with the megaphone was King Vidor, who won his spurs as a director when he launched "The Big Parade." It was he who had assembled this multitudinous scene on the river-bank, and the crown of its success was that the quick emotions of the extras had caught fire from the extemporaneous sermonizing of the leading man—who had actually been an evangelist in his time— and were giving the busy cameras far richer food than Mr. Vidor had dared to hope. And now the full-fledged result of that impromptu revival, and of many other unusual scenes of rehearsal and camera work, are given to the world in "Hallelujah," a movie which has aroused intense public interest, and given rise to much discussion. We quote Creightou Peet, the critic of the New York Evening Post:

"Hallelujah" is a truly great motion-picture and, consequently, it is going to receive a lot of attention from the "visual flow" and "rhythmic sequences of action" boys who go in for art in a big way. They only see three or four films a year, and these are invariably "significant." Most of us, however, will be satisfied to find that "Hallelujah" is not only beautifully acted and magnificently photographed, but that it achieves the impossible—it is something new under the sun.

I am afraid many people are going to visit Mr. Vidor's film with the attitude that they are about to inspect the mechanism of some quaint toy. "The colored race ..." "The persecuted black man ..."

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Instead of looking at "Hallelujah" as an expose of a quaint aspect of this our America, I think we should settle down to the fact that the Negro is as different from the rest of us as we are from the Russians, the Germans, or the French.

"Hallelujah" is chiefly concerned with two characters, Zeke, the sonorous-voiced revivalist, who is so deeply troubled because he finds sex and religion so bewilderingly interwoven, and little Chick, who also confuses her desires for religion with her desire for Zeke.

The characterizations of man and girl are splendid—they are distinct and indelible. They have no movie tricks or mannerisms. They are simple, direct, and hold your attention to the very last.

I think Mr. Vidor should be awarded some sort of Pulitzer prize for this picture. It seems to me quite as penetrating as "In Abraham's Bosom," and much better entertainment. And, after all, you do go to the theater—or the motion-picture—to be interested, excited, amused or stirred, rather than to have documentary evidence thrust under your nose in a mournful sequence of miserable events.

The American screen has in Mr. Vidor a director to be immensely proud of. Not to be too unkind, let us examine in detail one sequence, and imagine how it might have been done by one of our earlier directors—D. W. Griffith, for instance.

Mr. Vidor shows us Zeke returning to the cabin with the body of his little brother, whom he has accidentally killed. Moreover, he has lost in a crap game all the money he received for the sale of the season's cotton crop. He falls on his knees in front of his mother moaning and wailing. The smaller children gather around. The aged parson stands at one side, also moaning, chanting, invoking.

Zeke is humble ... he is contrite ... he asks the Lord to forgive him ... he is utterly confounded. Then the parson tells him to look aloft, for the chariot of the Lord cometh . . . for his salvation . . . the chariot of the Lord cometh . . . the chariot of the Lord cometh . . .

Zeke looks upward and sees a great cloud blotting out the sun . . . gradually it drifts away and, as he chants and prays, the white light of the sun strikes down on his face . . . the chariot of the Lord has come ... it is forgiveness ... his God has spoken . . . the black man standing in the field raises up his hands, and accepts the fiery benediction of the sun . . .

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Now, how would Mr. D. W. Griffith have managed this bit of business? I am very much afraid that he would have resorted to double photography and a superimpression of a brace of chariots dashing by filled with angels with papier-mache wings over some cloud effects. Mr. Vidor knew that his actors were so excellent, that his direction was so simple, so clear, and so honest that he had no need of double exposures, scenic effects or cardboard chariots. With half a dozen people and a ragged field he has done a fine and a beautiful thing. Also, it should honestly be said, much of his success is due to Mr. Haynes's magnificent voice calling so passionately on his God. Mr. Griffith, of course, had no microphone to help him in the old days.

"One of the most distinguished and exciting moving-pictures ever made" is the verdict of Richard Watts, Jr., who appraises screen productions for the New York Herald Tribune. He continues:

The enthusiasm of the moment, which a sedate reviewer should guard against carefully, might suggest that all caution be impulsively tossed aside and the drama categorically described as the most distinctive American screen work since "Greed," were it not for an unfortunate anticlimax. The final scenes are pictorially excellent, but they cause a hitherto brilliant dramatic effort to sag into frailty.

Such a momentary defect, however, should cause no one to overlook the definite fact that "Hallelujah" is one of the great motion-pictures, a work to be compared, with unashamed enthusiasm, to such a foreign classic as the mighty "Potemkin." It is poetry, drama, and pictorial magnificence, combined in one stalwart whole, and the result is something that constitutes a definite contribution to the local strivings for artistic expression. It is the talking-picture made into a distinctive American dramatic form.

With the expression of such hasty enthusiasm, it is probably time to give a reason or two for the departmental cheering. Perhaps the chief cause is the conviction that here is almost the first time in the audible photoplay when all the potentialities of the form, from dialog and musical effect to pictorial excellence, are merged into a drama that is definitely American, and definitely lacking in any trace of theatrical imitation. It traces a simple and believable story of Negro life, and until the unfortunate final sequences, it never seems obtrusive or incredible.

It is as a symphony of the Negro in the South, rather than as a straightforward narrative, that "Hallelujah" will be remembered. The story is of a young Negro, who is lured into a crooked crap game, unintentionally shoots his brother and, as a penance, becomes a wandering evangelist. It is the climax of the narrative when in a revival meeting he makes as his chief convert the girl who had been the cause of his downfall. Such an account is entirely incomplete, but it does suggest how lacking in theatrical complexities the drama is.

Nevertheless, when combined with its beauties of acting and production, the story is not without its major virtues. As directed by Mr. Vidor, and played by its brilliant cast, "Hallelujah" manages to achieve much of the ironic comment on the bitter alliance between religion and sex that M. France succeeded in getting into "Thais," while retaining the pictorial achievements of the brilliant "Porgy." The chief differences discernible at the moment are that the irony is far more kindly than the great Frenchman would ever have countenanced, and that the pictorial qualities retain a sort of quiet realism that makes "Porgy" look like a mere theatrical spectacle.

It might be advisable as a piece of faithful reporting, to describe in some detail the scenes of a Negro revival, of the life of the countryside, of the abysmal swamp land, of the natural gaiety of a black-and-tan cabaret in its real environment, of the wild sadness of a death lamentation. Here, however, it must be enough to say that all of these sensitively portrayed episodes succeed, among other things, in suggesting that the presence of the Negro race is one of the greatest esthetic blessings possest by this striving land. Certainly the quiet portrayal of its simple drama, which moves from a total lack of plot—that manages to be even more dramatic than its story-telling — casually and surely into unostentatious tragedy, results in one of the proudest of photoplays.

Hallelujah!, Nina Mae McKinney, Daniel Haynes, 1929
Nina Mae McKinney, Daniel Haynes, 1929
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At this point it is hardly necessary to say that the acting is excellent. There should be space, however, to add that Miss Nina Mae McKinney, who must certainly be one of the most beautiful women now at large, shows that there is nothing in this law of averages by giving a perfect performance as the Southern Thais, and that Daniel L. Haynes is brilliant as the gorgeous-voiced evangelist. The rest of the cast is, without exception, excellent, too.

Here the chorus of praise may be interrupted to record the fact that dissentient voices are heard from two sources— the Negro colony of New York's Harlem and one or two white critics of Southern origin. The producers of "Hallelujah" (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) followed the novel course of giving the film two New York premieres, one on Broadway, and the other some miles north, in the prosperous Negro colony. A number of the more important critics elected to view the production in its Afro-American environment, and these noted with interest that sections of the audience were inclined to laugh at some of the serious scenes of plantation life, especially the highly emotional ones. Broadway, on the contrary, takes them with sympathetic seriousness. Protests from the educated element of Harlem's population developed a few days later in the correspondence columns of The Herald Tribune, from which we quote the following letter:

The photoplay "Hallelujah" is a woful misrepresentation of Negro life, and does a grave injustice to the race. The whole aim of the picture seems to emphasize the worst side of Negro life, and to hold the race up as one without a serious purpose and aim in life. The picture greatly exaggerates and over-stresses the side of the Negro's life, which is not at all typical of the real purpose, ambition, and aspiration of the Negro race.
Throughout the picture you see nothing but the shiftless, carefree, criminal type, habitue of dens and dives, and a menace to society rather than an asset. The last impression in the picture is one that brings out the worst side of the Negro. No race wants its worst side presented.
Even the religion of the Negro is make a joke of in the picture. The reverence, deep devotion, and seriousness which characterize the religious life of the Negro have been made the butt of fun, and appear to be a huge joke in "Hallelujah." I have attended many camp meetings in the South, but never have I seen such an utter recklessness as what is made to appear in the religious gatherings in '' Hallelujah.''

The baptism scene is not at all a true portrayal of the religious expression of the Negro, and this beautiful expression of the religious emotions of the Negro has been made the occasion for jest, levity and comedy. To prostitute the ideals of a race in this fashion, and to misrepresent its greatest heritage is one of the greatest sins that could be committed against it. The producer of the "Hallelujah" picture, who claims to be from the South, is evidently acquainted only with the shiftless type of Negro and has made little effort to find any other.

CLEVELAND G. ALLEN, Negro writer.

A spirited defense of "Hallelujah" came from the Rev. William A. Byrd, a negro clergyman, whose letter was dated from Jersey City. He wrote: :

Undoubtedly, many things are overdrawn by this play, but it is a sad commentary on Negro life and religion to admit that what is portrayed of these two factors is mainly true. Not only in the South but here in the North and possibly in Harlem may be heard and seen the things set forth by '' Hallelujah. " If Mr. Allen and other Negroes who feel so badly about conditions not extant among Negroes would set about in a campaign of uplift to change these things they would serve a better purpose than they are now doing—grumbling because some one is showing up the race largely as it is. Upon reliable information a Negro bishop from the South, who holds conferences in the North, entered one of these pulpits recently and enacted a scene of fanaticism, bedlam, and ignorance equal to any shown by "Hallelujah."
The writer is a Negro clergyman, and regrets that too true to life are many things depicted by this play. Instead of camouflaging indignation, we as a rase should immediately begin to make such religious orgies impossible among us. The Negro bishopric should be filled by men who are educated, pious, and devout. These same bishops should endeavor to man their pulpits with men of that type also, and what is said of the Methodist churches should bo true of all other churches.
The careless, shiftless, and criminal type of Negro is too conspicuous among us. He has become a menace to our standing in all sections of the country where he is. When to this is added the pernicious spirit and habit of attempting to put himself on equality with all other Negroes, the condition becomes almost perilous. Instead of decrying "Hallelujah" let us praise it for bringing to our attention such a deplorable state of affairs.

Still another clerical defender of "Hallelujah" declared himself in the following letter:

It would be a pity if Mr. Allen's reaction to "Hallelujah" should be imagined to be the only possible one. With all due respect to him, I can not agree with his point of view. 1 attended the premiere of this film, and I do not agree that one only sees "the shiftless, criminal type." There are the cheerful industry of the workers in the cotton-fields, the marvelous, consistent love of the old father for the erring son, the ready forgiveness of mother and sweetheart, and the obvious sincerity of many of the misguided worshipers.
As one who has lived and worked among these people, I regard the film as a faithful representation of things that I myself witnessed. This is not to cast any slight on the race. The "dives" shown only indicate the aptitude of the Negro for learning by what he sees, and how even the worst things in our civilization are faithfully reproduced. This reflects on our example rather than on those less sophisticated folks who copy it. The religious scenes are mild compared to some that I have myself beheld, and these also merely show how the enthusiastic response of the Negro is misdirected by the unbalanced teaching and practise of our less responsible sects.
That there is a better side I know, but the educational value of this film is that it clearly depicts the all too common results of bad teaching and leadership. The qualities thus exploited may obviously be trained and directed into better channels. The film, therefore, is noteworthy as depicting scenes that actually exist, and at the same time revealing potentialities that can be (and in many oases have been) utilized for better things and as a means of achieving that "serious purpose" of which Mr. Allen speaks.

New York.

A Southern white reaction is represented by a critic of the Brooklyn Times, who signs his work " C. F. F." He writes:

We have seen the colored people of Louisiana, the Carolinas, Alabama, and Virginia in actual revivals. We have seen thousands lined up along the banks of a river, as converts were escorted out into the water for baptism.
Scores of times we have attended church services where the Negroes shouted and prayed. We recall the days when the celebrated John Jasper, whose belief that the "sun do move" gained him nation-wide reputation, exhorted his followers.
And we were imprest more than anything else, in seeing last night's production, with the fact that Mr. Vidor had failed to get the true atmosphere that surrounds the poverty-stricken people of the colored race in the South.
Mr. Vidor is unquestionably a great artist. The scenes in the swamplands and the portrayal of cotton-field workers are masterpieces of his ingenuity. The scene where Daniel Haynes prays for his dead brother, with a frenzied following gathered around, seemed to us, however, to lack the element of serious hysteria which grips such throngs when they are really in earnest.

The element of controversy that has arisen over "Hallelujah," and swelled the tide to the box-office, is well illustrated by this outburst by Pare Lorentz in Judge:

After tearing my collar off and yelling myself hoarse over " Hallelujah," I thought I had better go back and see it again, just to make sure.
Before the end of the picture I not only got the idea that King Vidor knew his subject but that he had an extraordinary understanding of the motivating instincts of his character. Vidor chose a robust, kindly buck plantation Negro for his main character. All plantation Negroes are no more like Zeke than all Baptist ministers are like Elmer Gantry. However, Elmer Gantry is the loud-mouthed and cheap dramatization of a loud-mouthed and cheap group of apostles. Zeke is the simple, superstitious and savage epitome of the unspoiled healthy plantation Negro.
The revival scenes in "Hallelujah" are not typical revival scenes, but they were not created out of fantasy. I have seen a hundred Negro services, and the only two that resembled the movie ceremonies were two Holy Roller camp meetings in the Southwest. They were, however, the most exciting and primitive orgies I have ever seen. If you think Vidor "guessed" his movie scenes, then Conrad guessed at the character of seamen.
Some jaundiced instinct seems to restrain the boys and girls from tipping their hat when a great man comes along. I think Vidor, in his casting, his music, his story, and his photography, created the greatest dramatization of the Negro, as he still exists outside the Harlem culture belt, that ever can be done with the movie form. The movietone was the best I have ever heard. I have yet to see a better job of acting than that performed by Daniel Haynes.

"Porgy," "The Emperor Jones," and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" are cited by a number of writers in seeking comparisons with which to define their appreciation of "Hallelujah." A New York World writer calls it a "daring departure from its timid predecessors built along the familiar and well-worn lines of box-office appeal, and continues:

How receptive the South will be to this boost of the Negro—the word "boost" will probably evolve into finger-pointing " propagander "—should make for some excellent moralizing and a Sunday story or two.
How great a percentage of the motion-picture public is willing to digest so fine and reverential a theme will probably open up new fields of conjecture, and should it prove financially successful may be the necessary impetus to sending this coarser art off on an arty tangent that may uplift the entire tone of the motion-pictures. In any case, it is to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's credit that they extended to capable King Vidor the facilities to work for fourteen months on this single costly experiment that will bring as emphatic pointers to rival companies as it will to itself.
"Hallelujah" is a fine and simple record of the most emotional race on earth, presenting its story in just that manner, and conspicuously minus the distortions of the Negro's character that have previously been used to capitalize on his pseudo-humorous mannerisms.

Hallelujah!, William Fountaine, Daniel Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, 1929
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King Vidor contributed a milestone in the history of silent films with his production of "The Big Parade," The Motion Picture News reminds us. "He has contributed another, this time in the field of sound pictures, with 'Hallelujah.' It's a big picture. Big in its story, big in its acting, big in its direction and, above all, despite the fact that it is enacted by an all-Negro cast, big in its box-office potential ties." And we read on:

When one can sit in a theater and be so absorbed in a story that one forgets that it is being enacted by Negroes, then the director and author have turned out something. When one looks at the images of the Negro players on the screen and forgets that they are black, then they too must be said to have contributed something far greater than anything that has been done before. That is the case with "Hallelujah."
Even in the South they are going to see this picture and like it. For the picture depicts Negro life as they know it in that country, and because of that they are going to be willing to accept it.

Himself a native of Texas, Mr. Vidor is quoted as saying that in his youth he used to watch the Negroes, study their music, and "wonder at the pent-up romance in them." Reading on:

It was a virgin field then. Later the stage invaded it, and plays like "Porgy" were produced, and made hits.
This gave me the ammunition I wanted. If stage plays with all-Negro casts, and stories like those by Octavius Roy Cohen and others, could have such great success, why shouldn't the screen make a successful Negro play?
But it remained for the taking-pictures, which I admit I don't really approve in the main, to get over my point. For in the talking-pictures we could use the Negro spirituals and the haunting music of the race. That settled it, and we went to work.
The story is based on events with which I was familiar as a boy at home in Texas. The picture is, I hope, evidence of the correctness of my theory that the screen can do more than just narrate a series of events. In "The Big Parade" we tried to catch the view-point of the doughboy by summarizing many of them in certain characters. In "The Crowd" we tried the same idea. We've tried to do it again in "Hallelujah" with the Negro.
I have been tremendously interested in my cast. I don't imagine any picture ever was made with more whole-hearted fun than was this one. We had singing for meals, and singing between scenes, and laughter and play all the time. But we had to work tremendously hard, and under great strain at times.
In the emotional scenes the players lived through the episodes; they truly didn't act them. They felt them. And, I'll tell you, it got even me at times. Some of the players will tell you that only real tears, and no glycerin ones, flowed in this picture. I will go so far as to say that a larger proportion of tears in this picture were real than in any other picture with which I am familiar.
A Negro is a natural actor and singer, and a born mimic. Any group of them naturally can sing and dance in harmony. They are born that way. It was a great experience to work with them.
With the average Hollywood actor one can calculate camera angles and get his cooperation in utilizing the mechanics of the set to the best advantage. Most actors have a business as well as histrionic attitude toward their work. But with the Negro it is best to allow full play to his emotions, getting the scene as well as you can. If you bother too much with the ordinary rules about cameras and microphones, you may find you've lost the most valuable asset the Negro brings to the screen—his remarkable spontaneity of feeling.
Almost every type I can think of was represented in the cast of our production. Daniel Haynes was understudy to Jules Bledsoe in "Show Boat" when he was signed for the chief role, and was at one time an itinerant preacher. Harry Gray, a former slave, now in his eighties, had never acted before. Nina Mae McKinney was picked up from the cast of "Blackbirds." Fannie Belle De Knight played in "Lulu Belle." William Fountaine was a typical vaudevillian. Then there were cotton-pickers and plantation singers, dancers from colored cabarets in Chicago and Los Angeles, even a couple of Pullman porters. They all showed the same naturalness, readiness to work just for the satisfaction of acting, and an enthusiasm for singing and praying that often resulted in breaking the delicate light valves used on our sound sets.

Source: Literary Digest - October 5, 1929


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