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Film / Hallelujah!

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Hallelujah! is a 1929 film directed by King Vidor, starring Daniel Haynes and Nina Mae McKinney.

Zeke (Haynes) is the eldest son of a family of black cotton farmers somewhere in the Deep South. Zeke and his little brother Spunk go off to the big city to sell their cotton crop. They do, getting $100 for their harvest, but Zeke wanders into a juke joint and into the clutches of scheming Chick (McKinney, playing a sexual temptress despite being only 16 years old). Chick and her partner Hotshot run a scam, luring Zeke into a rigged dice game and relieving him of all his family's hard-earned money. Zeke pulls a knife, Hotshot pulls a gun, and tragedy ensues. A grieving Zeke starts a new life as a traveling preacher, but his religious commitment is called into question when sexy Chick enters his life again.

Hallelujah! might be one of the most remarkable examples of Fair for Its Day in film history. Vidor could write his own ticket at MGM after directing a series of critical and commercial successes in the 1920s (The Big Parade, La Bohème, Show People, The Crowd). Vidor, who was making his first talking film, chose to spend his studio capital on a musical with an all-black cast. A film with an all-black cast is rare in the 21st century, much less in 1929, and Vidor's film also serves as a fine showpiece for African-American music and stage talent of the era, from old spirituals to McKinney's rousing performance of Irving Berlin's "Swanee Shuffle". Yet the film is filled with what can only be described as racist stereotypes. See Uncle Tomfoolery below.


  • The Atoner: Zeke is this for a while at least, as he turns to religion and becomes a preacher after his recklessness leads to Spunk's death. But he falls back into sin pretty easily when Chick pops back up in his life.
  • Betty and Veronica: Zeke has Missy Rose, the good girl adopted by his family who clearly adores him. He also has the darkly sensual and clearly promiscuous Chick, who leads him astray.
  • Death Glare: Zeke busts out a pretty intimidating one when he meets Chick and Hotshot again.
  • Dies Wide Open: Chick, after Zeke shoots her In the Back.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Zeke is supposed to meet his brother at the ferry and go back home, but one look at Chick and he forgets all about that. And later it is only too easy for Chick to keep Zeke looking at her while Hotshot switches out some real dice for the loaded dice in his pocket.
  • Easily Forgiven: Let's review what Zeke does over the course of the movie. He takes the $100 that is an entire year's worth of hard labor by his family, and gambles it away at dice. He then starts a bar fight that gets his brother killed. He later abandons his ministry at the first sight of Chick, leaving his family in the lurch, destroying Chick's sincere religious conversion in the process. He later murders Chick and Hotshot in a jealous rage. What's his punishment? An apparently brief prison sentence, followed by being welcomed home by his family with open arms.
  • Fixing the Game: Hotshot has a pair of loaded dice that he uses to cheat Zeke out of his bankroll.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: Zeke is a rather extreme example of the racist stereotype of the black man who can't control his urges. A spellbound Zeke carries Chick away from the mass baptism, and has to be brought back to his senses by his mother. Later, a similiarly spellbound Zeke takes Chick away from the revival meeting, and this time no one is able to stop him.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Hotshot is a liar and a thief—but he's also essentially correct when he dismisses Zeke as a "fake preacher" and sneers at Chick's religious conversion. One look at each other at a revival meeting, and Chick is biting on Zeke's arm, causing him to literally carry her away into sin.
  • Lohengrin and Mendelssohn: Missy Rose plays the Wedding March as a local couple gets married.
  • Mammy: Zeke's mother is actually called "Mammy", and she dresses the part, but this is partially averted as she is not a servant to a white person.
  • Monochrome Casting: A very rare example of a film with an all-black cast. Hallelujah inspired later examples, in the mainstream, such as Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky and Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bes. Of the lot, Vidor's is the most realistic, with the other movies seeming to be set in an Alternate Universe filled only with African-Americans.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Chick wears tight dresses throughout the movie, except for her all-too-brief religious conversion.
  • The Musical: The only one of King Vidor's career, unless one counts his uncredited work on The Wizard of Oz.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: When Zeke cradles a dying Spunk in the juke joint, and later when Zeke cradles Chick, the second person he killed.
  • Source Music: All the music, from old Negro spirituals to jazz numbers, is generated in-universe.
  • Starbucks Skin Scale: Lighter-skinned Chick is called "high yellow" by darker-skinned Hotshot.
  • Title Drop: Lots of characters should "Hallelujah!" at various religious meetings.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: Vidor apparently went into this film with the best of intentions and wanted to make an authentic portrait of rural black life. So it's all the more disappointing that Hallelujah is a collection of racist stereotypes. There's the simple-minded poor folk with their bad grammar, which could be excused as being somewhat realistic for people who were denied an education. The portrayal of protagonist Zeke as an idiot is harder to excuse, and the portrayal of Zeke as thinking with his penis and being completely unable to control his urges is even worse. Then there's Zeke's younger sister, who thinks a ticking watch has a heartbeat, or the time-honored racist stereotype of blacks gambling with dice. The lack of white people in the movie also rather insidiously suggests that black people are causing their own problems, instead of being oppressed by racism.
  • Working on the Chain Gang: Zeke is briefly seen laboring at a quarry while in prison.