Classic Black Films Stand as History, Art Film critic Bob Mondello reviews the DVD release of three classic black films: Hallelujah, Green Pastures and Cabin in the Sky. He says they are interesting, both as history and as works of art.
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Classic Black Films Stand as History, Art

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Classic Black Films Stand as History, Art


Arts & Life

Classic Black Films Stand as History, Art

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In 1929, MGM released "Hallelujah," the first all-black feature made by a major movie studio. In the years immediately following, in a largely segregated America, there would be other all-black movies, known in the trade as `race films.' This week, "Hallelujah," and two pictures that came after it, "The Green Pastures" and "Cabin in the Sky," are being released on video. Bob Mondello says they are interesting, both as history and as works of art.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

The DVDs all begin with a legend you cannot fast forward through. It says: `The films you are about to see are a product of their time. They may reflect some of the prejudices that were commonplace in American society, especially when it came to racial and ethnic minorities. Those depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. These films are being presented as they were originally created because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming those prejudices never existed.'

And with that, the films begin.

(Soundbite of music from "Hallelujah")

MONDELLO: There are stereotypes everywhere, but also, especially in the case of "Hallelujah," powerful images everywhere, starting with a long line of stooped figures picking cotton. The black and white images look so real today they could be mistaken for documentary footage. Most early talkies were shot on sound stages where voices, music and effects could be controlled. But director King Vidor, making his first sound film, was working on a budget too tiny to re-create sets indoors, and he had an epic story to tell about a poor cotton farmer who succumbs to temptation before finding salvation as a preacher. So he filmed on location for things like a riverside baptism and a poor black family's front yard. And he used sound that was not remixed and tinkered with, but just the way he found it, at a cotton gin, for instance.

(Soundbite of "Hallelujah")

Unidentified Man #1: Come on there ...(unintelligible). Let's hurry up and get this cotton gin so we can get on down...

MONDELLO: In silent films, whites had mostly played black characters in black face, a tradition Al Jolson brought to talkies when he sang "Mammy" in "The Jazz Singer." But "Hallelujah" was different. Black audiences could see and, for the first time, hear themselves on screen, and that proved revelatory, even when the plots traded heavily in stereotypes, as when a banjo player strumming sets three young sharecropper's boys to tap-dancing.

(Soundbite of "Hallelujah")

(Soundbite of music, tap-dancing)

MONDELLO: Being an all-black film limited "Hallelujah's" box office prospects, but it did better than the studio expected and established, with a mix of music, down-home characters and religion, that the genre known as race films could make money for the big studios. The other two movies in the DVD set followed its pattern. From the 1930s, there's "The Green Pastures," a Pulitzer Prize-winning folk drama that brought Bible stories to life.

(Soundbite of "The Green Pastures")

Unidentified Man #2: What would you to say it was it to rain for 40 days and 40 nights?

Unidentified Man #3: Well, I'd say that was a complete rain.

Unidentified Man #2: Noah, you don't know who I is, do ya?

Unidentified Man #3: Oh, the face is easy, but I don't recall the name.

(Soundbite of thunder)

MONDELLO: Then in 1943, there's "Cabin in the Sky," a musical with comedian Eddie "Rochester" Anderson from Jack Benny's radio show and the great Ethel Waters as his adoring wife.

(Soundbite of music from "Cabin in the Sky")

Ms. ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Here I go again. I'm hearing trumpets blow again. Or glow again, taking a chance on love.

MONDELLO: "Cabin in the Sky" was based on a Broadway hit and, although it had an all-black cast, it was expected to appeal to white audiences as well as black ones. The budget was still small, so they brought in an unknown named Vincent Minelli to direct. And for a bit part they hired a young singer who was so good she made three movies that year, Lena Horne.

(Soundbite of music from "Cabin in the Sky")

Ms. LENA HORNE: (Singing) There's honey in the honeycomb. There's sugar in the cane.

MONDELLO: Like the other two pictures in this DVD set, "Cabin in the Sky" has some patronizing moments that will give today's audiences pause, but at least the director wasn't required to shoot Lena Horne's numbers in a way that made them easy to delete when the film played segregated theaters in the South. Eliminating African-American performers who weren't just playing servants was a common practice during those decades, one reason these race films are so valuable as historical records of the performers of the era. It's also why race films seem today to have been ahead of the social curve. They are sensitively packaged here with commentaries by black cultural scholars and with shorts featuring other African-American talent from the era, including an already amazing seven-year-old named Sammy Davis Jr.

(Soundbite of music from DVD set short)

SAMMY DAVIS JR.: (Singing) Oh, what have you got that made my wife think you so hot? ...(Unintelligible).

MONDELLO: The richness displayed on these DVDs would be remarkable even for entertainments made without constraints in a studio system that didn't denigrate and condescend to its black performers. But as the films demonstrate, talent is talent. And it was possible, even working against terrible odds, to achieve a level of art. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music from unidentified movie of this DVD set)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Let's go ride. I plan my way because there's guiding light. It'll be shining...

Unidentified Man #4 and Group: (Singing) ...shining at the end of the road.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) I seem to roll through a field that is snowy white...

Unidentified Man #5: Yeah, yeah.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) ...and through the silent night the banjo is (unintelligible) cabin door will be open...

Unidentified Man #4 and Group: (Singing) at the end of the road.

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