Who Died and Made Him King?

Judith Weisenfeld’s chapter “’Taint What You Was, It’s What You is Today” describes the making of the film Hallelujah! and how director King Vidor shaped the film and drew connections between black religion and sexuality. I found this chapter very interesting, especially in how it laid out Vidor’s claims about the film’s authenticity. He discussed the film as if it were an ethnography and presented himself as the right person to create it because “he considered himself an authority on ‘the negro,’” and grew up in the South observing black life (20). Other details from the production, however, show how audacious this assertion is. For example, his assessment of the actors in the film as “essentially untrained, naturally emotional and religious” reveals his deep biases and lack of understanding about how the black people and the black press viewed the actors and their reputations (44). Similarly, I found Vidor’s reassurance that the film wasn’t intended to have political impacts or push for social change almost comically ridiculous because it both entirely ignores political and social movements in the community he claimed to know so much about and because his own social and political views are in the film. Furthermore, the fact that the film had a segregated premiere in it of itself is a social and political issue, whether he wanted to recognize it or not. Despite claiming authenticity, stories from behind the scenes help illuminate that Vidor’s control over the film and his choices resulted in a film that frequently depicts black people in the south from his viewpoint, rather than how said people actually viewed themselves.

One of the other things that stuck out to me was how much debate surrounded the film even at the time it came out, and how some of the controversy seems similar to debates about representation in Hollywood today. I particularly noticed the description of how the cast of Hallelujah! protested lines in the original script that included the n-word and other slurs and were eventually successful in getting it changed. This example again shows just how little King Vidor understood about the community he was supposedly authentically portraying. It also reminded me of stories I’ve read about how people of color or women in Hollywood have had to fight their directors in smaller ways to try and make their characters less stereotypical and portray them the way they feel is necessary. For example, in light of Chadwick Boseman’s death, I’ve seen this story going around online about how he had to fight Marvel to be allowed to use an African accent when filming Black Panther rather than a British or American accent.

Leave a Reply