Hallelujah (1929): King Vidor’s Inventive, All-Black, Oscar-Nominated Musical

With “Hallellujah,” considered to be the first all-black feature, the innovative director King Vidor made a rather “personal” project within MGM, despite the discouragement of the conservative studio’s heads.

On some level, MGM was right, knowing that the film will not be playing in the Deep South.  But Vidor, who had previously made the bold and inventive “The Big Parade” and “The Crowd,” insisted on making a spiritual story with blacks as the main characters.

In his memoirs, the Texas-born Vidor discusses his familiarity with the African-American experience, based on his participation in mass baptisms and religious ceremonies of the employees of his father’s lumber mills.  To appease MGM, Vidor offered to direct Hallelujah without salary.

The decision to film on location, in Tennessee, was problematic, too, as this was the beginning of the sound era, and the existing technology and conditions were not particularly suitable for exterior scenes.  As a result, Vidor decided to shoot most of the tale as a silent feature, and then post-dub the sound in the studio’s labs.

Nominally, by today’s standards, the plot is stereotypical and condescending, but by the standards of the era, it was considered realistic and even daring.

Screen debutante Nina Mae McKinney plays Chick, a young woman who disrupts the stability of a black sharecroppers’ community. Daniel L. Haynes co-stars as Zeke, an innocent, impressionable youngster who is moved to killing for the sake of Chick.  Close to and dependent on his mother (Fannie Belle DeKnight), Zeke turns to religion to ease his grief.  Vowing to change his ways, he becomes a preacher

Other members of the cast were amateurs, such as Harry Gray, who worked as a janitor at a Harlem newspaper.

The dense soundtrack includes, in addition to jazz, spirituals, and folk tunes, songs by Irving Berlin.

As MGM had predicted, many Southern exhibitors were reluctant to show the film, fearing that too many blacks would attend.  But some bolder independent exhibitors gave the film a try.

In the end, “Hallelujah” was more of an artistic and critical than a commercial achievement.

Oscar Nominations (given for 1929-30): 1

Best Director: King Vidor

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Director Oscar was Lewis Milestone for the anti-war drama, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which also won best Picture.

The other nominees were Clarence Brown for “Anna Christie,” Robert Z. Leonard for “The Divorcee,” and Ernst Lubitsch for “The Love Parade.”

With five Best Director nominations to his credit, Vidor is one of the greatest losers in Oscar’s history.   Among his nominations are “The Champ,” in 1931-1932, and “The Citadel,” in 1938.