King Vidor Ain’t It

The article, “‘’Taint What You Was, It’s What You Is Today’: Hallelujah and the Politics of Racial Authority,” is part of a larger book entitled Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949.  “‘Taint” is the first chapter of the book and covers the production and pre-production of the film we just watched for class, Hallelujah. The beginning of this chapter focuses on King Vidor and some of the choices he put into the film’s making. Let it be known that “the final product was largely the result of Vidor’s wishes and decisions, with a few significant exception of intervention from the studio and the censors” (20). Because of this, we can extrapolate that most decisions of the production were approved by him and can, thus, use the information to examine him.

King Vidor in a suit and hat

King Vidor notes his motivation for making the movie was “the sincerity and fervor of [black people’s] religious expression [and] the honest simplicity of their sexual drives” (20). This is not the only time that King Vidor equates black people with simplicity. He, “knowing the negro, [chose] a simple theme for ‘Hallelujah’” (21). I shouldn’t need to say so, but for the purposes of clarity I will shine a light on the problematic implications of this thought process. The two-dimensional qualities of the black character in the film, torn between vice and virtue, are sincerely how King Vidor views the race.

Furthermore, he considers himself an authority on the depiction of these people and had “created the story from his own observations of southern black life” (20). In fact, he had so much confidence in his ability that “aboard the ship returning to the United States he drew up a list for the studio elements ‘suitable for an all-Negro sound film’” (20).  In other words, he constructed his ideas before consulting any member of the race for ideas they may have.

Hallelujah cover

However, fret not. There was at least one black person working on this, besides the cast of course. King Vidor, himself, “selected the white screenwriter, Wanda Tuchlock, and Ransom Rideout, a black playwright and studio writer, added dialogue at the studio’s request” (21). Parsing the phrasing, it is a likely assumption that Rideout did not write all the dialogue. It seems like the real writer was Tuchlock and Rideout was just there to make some of the dialogue sound more “authentic”.

I could go on, but I make my entry from what I found in just the first couple of pages and the chapter goes on for 33. It was an interesting read and gave concrete facts to the vibes of problematic depiction I got from just watching the film the first time.

2 thoughts on “King Vidor Ain’t It

  1. I agree with your points regarding King Vidor’s perception of African American culture. Although he tried to provide an equal and fair presentation, Vidor’s comments still sound as if he feels above the ethnic group as a whole. As a result, the movie loses its accuracy and comes off as sometimes stereotypical.

  2. Your assessment of King Vidor’s attitude towards his source material and the way he seems to so carelessly flaunt his superiority is correct. The way some of the scenes, especially the hypersexualized ones, gave me flashbacks to movies such as Birth of a Nation, or similar films that racially stereotyped black people during the early film era.

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