Warner’s “Hallelujah” is absolutely a film that deserves to be on DVD, though it can be heartbreaking to watch. The first release from a major studio to feature an all-black cast, this 1929 melodrama simultaneously offers a glimpse of unjustly forgotten performers and the deep-seated racism that kept them in obscurity.
King Vidor directed the film about Zeke Johnson (Daniel L. Haynes), a shiftless sharecropper who accidentally murders his brother in a barroom brawl and then finds redemption as a preacher. The pulpy story gets a boost from some outstanding musical numbers — practically every scene makes room for a gospel shout or a jazz-tap combo — and Vidor still impresses with his grasp of how to create detail for his onscreen world.
Scholars Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton offer incisive context for “Hallelujah’s” greatest asset — Nina Mae McKinney’s star turn as sultry love interest Chick — in their commentary. Time has done nothing to quell her gifts, and the commentators deftly analyze the performance. In another time, she could have been a legend.
But she isn’t a legend, of course, and the comments make it clear that she was held back by a Hollywood system that abused its black actors.
For all its achievements, “Hallelujah” still trades on popular stereotypes of the day. The scholars note so many prejudiced assumptions that the film becomes a mortifying lesson on racism.
And the two shorts appended as extras — both starring McKinney and the pre-adolescent Nicholas Brothers — push stereotypes further. Then, as though to salve the cringe-worthy racism, they offer song or dance that are still remarkable to behold.
“Hallelujah’s” lasting value is in that conflict between liberating artistry and oppressive circumstances. It’s a classic precisely because it isn’t easy to watch.