The Story of Eve: Sinner, Saint and Part-time Movie Star
THE SEXY TWENTIES: PART III
And in the interim, the first Black screen goddess made her debut in King Vidor’s all Black musical Hallelujah (1929).
Nearing the last rows, the group burst into song, singing to the
heavens…Good, gentle folk, the Johnson’s are pictured as serene
and complicated–as long as their basic instincts are kept in check.
When these are unleashed, however, trouble’s a brewin’…In this
case, trouble proves to be…full-bosomed, spicy cabaret dancer,
Chick (Bogle, 1973; pp. 28-29).
So Hollywood hadn’t changed so much after all! Director King Vidor’s portrayal of Black folk was both racist and unrealistic. The images he conjured up were not based on people, but on his own fantasies. Thus the problems of “The Negro,” as articulated by Vidor, did not spring from living in an oppressive society but from Black folks own inadequacies. Ergo, there are no White characters in Hallelujah.
For Vidor, sexual women–especially sexual women of Color–were the embodiment of evil and the gateway that opens the door to humankind’s “baser instincts.” He would pull the same filmic stunt, years later, with Indian women in Duel In the Sun.
Chick, played by actress Nina Mae Mckinny, is trouble in paradise and she is not “real.”
She represents Vidor’s obsession with Black and Brown sexuality; his dark meat fantasy. His dark Eve. She is half-white and, split in two: a character at war with herself. Her black half symbolized her sexuality, her white half her viginal twin.
Against McKinny’s simmering sexuality, Vidor placed Hallalujah’s good girls, “Missy Rose” and “Mammy Bowser; both asexual. For love and lust Zeke turns his back on his own family and on Missy Rose. Ultimately, in a fit of jealous rage, Zeke kills Chick.
Many critics did not take kindly to Vidor’s portrayal of Black life. “One letter to the editor of a black paper charged that King Vidor’s ‘filthy hands were reeking with prejudice.’ Another writer referred to the movie’s ‘insulting niggerisms'” (Leab. 1975; p. 93).
The irony is that Vidor had tried to make a break from Hollywood’s stereotypes about Blacks–even going so far as to consult Harold Garrison, the great-grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd. But he failed miserably.
As the British critic John Garrison later remarked:”I note from a
publicity puff that Vidor freed the Negro from misunderstanding
just as Abe Lincoln freed him from slavery. Both statements are
exaggerated (Leab, 1975; 93).
References: Leish, K W, Cinema. 1974
Bogle, D. Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks. 1973
Leab, D.J., From Sambo to Superspade, 1975
Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers 2013, Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson, 1997 all rights reserved.