King Vidor’s Hallelujah! Another Black Experience Told From a White Perspective: Pardon My Biased Breakdown Below 

As I was watching King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), my initial reaction of intrigue quickly disintegrated into annoyance and finally confusion. In this short reaction, I will point out what I questioned about the film. Next, I will summarize how Dr. Jessica H. Howard’s article entitled Hallelujah!: Transformation in Film helped increase my understanding of the film especially in regard to the music. Finally, I will pose critical-thinking statements and questions about the notion of non-blacks telling black narratives.

The context of the film is extremely important to understand my frustrations with the film.. In the 1920’s African Americans, engaged in sharecropping, this technique allowed white landowners, many of whom were former slaveholders, to pay little to no money to their black workers. At the beginning of the film, black workers are shown happily picking cotton and singing with glee. Although the film emits white characters, this cotton-picking scene felt out of touch with reality. The character “Mammy” a sweet, caring grandmother, seemed to fit almost perfectly with the character by the same name.  A mammy was depicted as a “plump, black,  usually older, happy female slave. The film mixes themes of religion, sexual temptation, and music to reveal what I describe as a sad, musical comedy.

Dr. Howard eloquently describes how Hallelujah! had a tremendous “ impact on later folk musicals; it also initiated Hollywood’s interest in “negro religiosity.” Howard describes how Vidor created something unique in terms of audio ingenuity in film. The characters were synchronized with the music. Vidor used acapella to help the film transition in an authentic manner. Howard described how emotions of love, lust, sadness were effortlessly shared through song. The film presented a relatable dichotomy, sexual desire versus religious commitment; this was one of the reasons white audiences found the film relatable, Howard notes.

Howard also notes how Hallelujah! “exploited the use of black stereotypes and capitalized on the supposed natural connection of blacks with music (“their” music-spirituals, jazz), yet, in Altman’s words, “wherever folk elements were present they were used for their picturesque qualities rather than for their ability to engender a myth of the American past” (Howard, 450). Vidor along with writers like Wanda Tucock offered only an outside perspective about black religion, spirituality, and life. How valid are films without primary representation? The black experience in the 1920s was painful and religion doubled as a survival tactic and community togetherness. Is that reality accurately conveyed in the film?

2 thoughts on “King Vidor’s Hallelujah! Another Black Experience Told From a White Perspective: Pardon My Biased Breakdown Below 

  1. Olivia, I really enjoyed reading your post and the questions that followed. I was interested in seeing how the general public reacted to Hallelujah when it came out in 1929, and if they shared the same thoughts as you about the dissonance between the story and the reality for Black Americans at the time. I found a review of the film from Time Magazine, and the first line is as follows: “Before the end of this picture you get the idea that King Vidor, who wrote and directed it, does not know much about Negroes but that he has guessed and reasoned out a lot.” Time also described the film as “a white man’s comment on the relationship between sex and religion.” So, it is clear that critical audiences even in the early 1900s were aware of the lack of representation behind the camera in creating this story. However, it appears that this issue was not taken seriously by the critics, as Time went on to say that “Vidor’s skill as a picturemaker is enough alone to make Hallelujah one of the best films of the year.” Again, Vidor gets the praise for the film and not any of the actors or actresses on screen.

  2. Olivia, I really like all of the points you made and how well thought out they were. I especially liked your mention of the “mammy,” character as this was something we learned about in African-American Literature and proves to be an important role to learn and understand.
    Carly, I appreciate the time and effort you put in to find these articles to show that although the critics may not approve, they still give Vidor the praise for it.
    How different do you think this reaction/praise would have been in the 1960’s? Today?

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