The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.
~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals
With the dawn of sound, mainstream Hollywood was still uninterested in making race films, lest it lose the bigot dollar; fortune would change with the repeated efforts of King Vidor, one of the era’s most successful directors, to mount a “personal project”, one that recalled his roots in the South- an African-American musical project, inspired by his childhood observation of black spirituals. While Vidor convinced the company to mount an all-black production based on the success of black-led Broadway shows at the box office, he did so at losses of varying degree- he had to invest his salary in the film, and emphasize the “sexual deviance” of African-Americans, so as to not alienate white audiences.
Hallelujah! (1929), in all its initial eagerness to show, in Vidor’s words, “the Southern Negro as he is”, by and large sees blackness as an aesthetic and a vehicle for entertainment; its first twenty minutes almost feel like a walking tour of happy stereotypes in Stephen Foster land, sharecroppers literally singing “Swanee River” as they pick cotton, mammies and pickaninnys flaunting spunk and tune. Once the film moves to big city and into the clubs, however, it takes a turn into giddy entertainment, partly because of the introduction of then sixteen year-old Nina Mae McKinney as a hustling pool hall girl. These scenes are also an invaluable portrait of a hardly-seen “missing link” in the history of classic jazz, portraying jazz in its relative infancy.
Hallelujah! becomes its most powerful when the religious and sexual aspects of the picture collide in an orgastic spiritual revival, unexpectedly turning the film into a powerful examination of the relationship between fundamentalist religion and sexual hysteria, and thus a more specific film than Vidor’s original intentions. Few moments in film are as shocking as when Daniel Haynes, as a preacher who has turned to God to keep himself from the dangers sex, falls into the religious mosh pit below him, entranced by McKinney’s physical reaction to her repentance. Thereafter, Hallelujah! only turns darker, as the results of Haynes’ decisions leads him to a pitiless point of no return in the swamps of Tennessee. Of course, the film allows him a return to Stephen Foster land, a return he and the audience don’t truly deserve, but a release from the darkest depths of human nature is at least appreciated. Maybe just the image of Haynes on the top of a train car, playing a banjo as thunder rolls would have sufficed for those in want of a more bittersweet coda.
The first Hollywood film to feature an all black cast is a complicated and often contradictory work, in ways sometimes indicative of the state of race in film as a whole. Check back soon for continued explorations of race films, as Paul Robeson dominates a shaky decade for the genre.