Pop the DVD into your machine, and you read a disclaimer about how the film reflects the prejudices of its time. The southern blacks aren’t portrayed as boozy, lustful, villains as in D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, but they are certainly pulled straight out of the mould of the shufflin’ cotton picking black. – An image only slightly less offensive.
The film revolves around a picker named Zeke, and how he is tempted by sin, embodied by the sexy saloon singer Chick and her con-man boyfriend. Chick uses her wiles to lure Zeke into a crooked craps game, and he ends up losing the money he has earned. Even worse, his brother Spunk is fatally wounded in the aftermath.
Zeke is shattered by the tragedy, and while overcome by remorse at Spunk’s funeral, he is born-again, and essentially becomes a preacher right there on the spot. He begins to orate, and the funeral service empties to hear him speak.
The film then skips forward, and Zeke has become a traveling evangelist with a large following. In one of his visits, he meets up with; you guessed it - Chick and her accomplice. They taunt him as he rides down the main street on a mule, and he confronts them violently.
The film centers on the relationship between Chick and Zeke, and how he seems to be unable to resist her. She comes to a prayer meeting, ostensibly to jeer him some more, but she ends up being converted, too. The devout Zeke seems to forget his teachings when Chick is around him, and this is most noticeable in a sequence where he baptizes her, and then decides to carry her off to a nearby tent for some post-ceremony hanky-panky. It’s in this scene that the movie skates most closely to the stereotype of the sex-crazed Negro seen in the Griffith film.
Despite himself, Zeke runs away with Chick and breaks the heart Missy Rose, the good, pure girl who loves him. The film skips forward again, and we see Zeke working in a sawmill and living in a small shack with Chick. They seem happy enough, but the arrival of Chick’s old partner sets tragic events into motion.
Much of Hallelujah is embarrassing by the standards of today. The film actually has lines like “I’m sure gonna get me some cornbread and chitlins today!” and “The Devil’s sure done got a hold on me.” There is hardly a black stereotype that it doesn’t include.
What kind of film is Hallelujah? It’s not a great film; frankly, it’s not even a very good one. It is, however, an important one. It is really the first film made by the major studios to feature all blacks in the cast, and that is no small distinction. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, it was not a good candidate to make any money, and it is to Vidor’s everlasting credit that he worked to get it made. Warts and all.