STUDIO: Warner Home Video
MSRP: $19.98
RATED: Unrated
RUNNING TIME: 100 Minutes
• Commentary
• 2 Vintage Musical Shorts
• Theatrical Trailer

The Pitch

“Let’s give the KKK a much-deserved kick in their collective skirts by creating a musical morality play with an all-black cast.”

The Humans

Daniel L. Haynes, Nina Mae McKinney, William Fountaine, Harry Gray, Fanny Belle DeKnight, Everett McGarrity, Victoria Spivey.

Soul Train started out with a lot of shy participants.

The Nutshell

The poor, share-cropping Johnson family has finished picking the season’s cotton crop. Eldest son Zeke (Haynes) and his brother Spunk (McGarrity) are sent off to sell their wagon-load of cotton at the local market. With the picking behind him and a pocketful of hard-earned cash putting a spring in his step, Zeke finds himself tempted by a lusty dancer named Chick ( McKinney). When Chick sees the modest bankroll Zeke is carrying, she takes him to a nearby juke joint for drinks and dancing. Chick tells Zeke that they could have a real high time if Zeke made some easy money by shooting dice with a sharp-dressed fellow called Hot Shot (Fountaine). What Zeke doesn’t know is that Chick and Hot Shot are a pair of grifters trying to dupe him. The money quickly disappears, and Zeke’s reaction to being conned ignites a tragedy that leaves him straddling the thin line between heaven and hell. A couple of Irving Berlin tunes lighten the mood mercifully along the way.

"I hope hat technology advances in the hip hop era."

The Package

For a minor but historically significant film released in 1929, Hallelujah has been preserved quite well. A few spots and scratches here and there and some noticeable soft focus keep it from reaching perfection, but overall I found the black and white video and mono audio more than adequate, especially during the lively musical sequences. The split commentary track from black cultural scholars Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton is appropriately informative without becoming utterly boring. The two provide plenty of background information on the cast and crew and put the film in its proper historical context. The musical shorts Pie, Pie Blackbird and The Black Network feature Nina Mae McKinney. Otherwise, they have no connection to the main film. The theatrical trailer is a mixture of text teasers and short scenes from the film in the style used for decades before voiceovers became popular.

The Nutshell

You might expect an early talkie with not a single white face on screen to somehow deal with the issue of race, or at the very least to touch on that theme in some subtle way. Your expectations might be further bolstered by the disclaimer at the start of the film that warns viewers of the social climate in which the film was made and the unsavory ways African Americans were portrayed by Hollywood in the early 20th century. However, the disclaimer is more for the short films in the extras than the feature. Hallelujah has plenty of serious themes at play, but racial division is not one of them. Apparently, MGM originally wanted director King Vidor to make a movie about the KKK. Instead, he offered to give up his salary to make the film his way. The film he realized is a treatise on human weakness, greed and the power of redemption, both religious and within one’s family. Vidor somehow balances it all without getting heavy-handed.

The only scene in black entertainment history with more genuine
Florida standing up to some gangsters for Michael on Good Times.

This was the first talking picture Vidor directed (he’s perhaps most famous for directing four Oscar-winning performances in his career as well as some of the black and white sequences in the Wizard of Oz), and he makes the transition from the stagy, over-articulated style of silent movies admirably. The performances overall are spot-on and natural. Haynes is especially good as Zeke. Not only can he carry a tune, but his character experiences so many harsh transitions, from naïve farmboy to emboldened spiritual leader to jilted lover. It would be easy to label Zeke as an unrestrained human specimen, a man who cannot control his urges even when God steps in to show him the way. But anyone who has lived in poverty knows that money feels like power in paper form, and every extra dime seems like a down payment on happiness. Hallelujah also contains some effective musical sequences. Even in the most emotionally draining moments, the soulful rhythms and tones of the church crackle with quiet power. Irving Berlin’s two contributions stand out as the most polished numbers, but the music is almost an afterthought. The story is not driven by the music, although the movie could be seen as an early attempt at a traditional musical. Historically, Hallelujah is a landmark in black cinema, but it’s also a great film by any standard.

9 out of 10