The first all-African American feature film ever made, "Hallelujah!" was also King Vidor's first "talkie," and one that he was willing to forfeit his salary for in order to make.
Those who might be troubled by "racial stereotypes" are failing to see the exquisite beauty of this film, and its place in cultural history; it is an astounding film for all Americans, especially those of African descent, to watch and be proud of.
A melodramatic morality tale, it is about a naive cotton farmer who falls into the net of a pretty but corrupt girl, and his rocky road from sin to redemption.
It also shows the hardship of the life of a sharecropper; the wrenching poverty and backbreaking labor, as well as the faith to survive it all.
Daniel L. Haynes is extraordinary as Zeke. Had he been born 50 years later, he would no doubt have been a major world superstar. Incredibly handsome and charismatic, he was also blessed with a marvelous voice, and great acting ability. Thank goodness this film exists, as a remembrance of his enormous talent.
The other members of the cast are also excellent, with Nina Mae McKinney as the seductive Chick and Fanny Belle DeKnight, as Mammy Johnson, Zeke's mother who never gives up hope for her wayward son. The scene where Mammy holds the children in her arms and sings a lullaby is one that moves me to tears; this is a film that expresses much love, and the best of human characteristics.
The music is glorious, combining spirituals like "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" with songs like Irving Berlin's "Waiting at the End of the Road," and there are also some superb dance numbers. I was particularly delighted by the short but well executed sand soft shoe in the bar scene, a style that started in the early 1910s during the minstrel shows. Tap dancing has its roots in slavery, and the history of this unique American art form is fascinating; anyone interested in the evolution of American dance will love this film.
The b&w cinematography by Gordon Avil is crisp and uses stark contrasts, and for the most part, there is little evidence of its age. Coming from the same era, and with similar themes of good and evil, this film shares a kinship with the DuBose Heyward and Gershwin versions of "Porgy and Bess." Total running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.