Uncle Tom never had it so good. When The Green Pastures and Hallelujah, two major-studio movies with all-black casts, were made by white writers and directors in the early days of talkies, most critics sanctified them as works of art for which the film industry would be enduringly proud. It hasn’t worked out that way. The passage of time and improved racial perspectives have drastically altered the way they look and sound today.
Writer and codirector Marc Connelly’s stagebound film version of his long-running, critically acclaimed Broadway play The Green Pastures retells Old Testament stories through the eyes of rural black children. As a series of folk fables, the film has some witty, imaginative touches. But the cast is saddled with dialogue (”Gangway for de Lawd!”) and Jim Crow characterizations so overripe with old-fashioned stereotypes that Porgy and Bess seems enlightened by comparison.
Thanks to director King Vidor, Hallelujah is much more cinematic and still packs real dramatic punch. But its tale of a wayward black preacher who finds redemption among hymn-singing mammies and pappies in the South is fatally undercut by characterizations that are at heart caricatures, especially when the movie equates their sexual desires with sin and ”de debil.”
Both movies remain historically interesting, though, if only as evidence of how wrongheaded Hollywood can be, whatever its ostensible intentions. Hallelujah: C