Mystery Train, a moody comedy by envelope-pushing director Jim Jarmusch, is generally regarded as a landmark moment for modern filmmaking in Memphis. A historical marker in front of the Arcade restaurant at the corner of S. Main and G.E. Patterson commemorates Mystery Train, and the numerous subsequent films that were shot in and around the refurbished district, including early features written and directed by local filmmaker Craig Brewer. But Mystery Train is hardly Memphis' most historically important film. That honor goes to King Vidor's Hallelujah, which was released exactly 60 years before Jarmusch's soulful meditation on time, distance, and decay, and is screening at the Brooks Museum this week.
Hallelujah, which was shot in and around Memphis, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1929 and is identified by many contemporary critics as a film of note. It never had a chance at the box office. It's not that there wasn't a market for the innovative talkie, but the film simply wasn't made available. Hallelujah's cast was entirely African American, and nobody had ever seen that before. The novelty, however, was no match for institutional racism. In Chicago, theater owners, with the exception of a lone indie, passed on the first run of the film, fearing that it would attract a large audience — but a black one. The casting made the film a non-starter for theater owners in the Jim Crow South.
Although it was unprecedented, Hollywood producers knew Hallelujah was a risky proposition from the beginning and wouldn't have made it in the first place if King Vidor, a proven director, hadn't agreed to forego pay and roll his salary into production costs. And even if Vidor's depictions of African Americans seem stereotypical by modern standards, the filmmaker clearly set out to buck norms and make the best film white Hollywood could make about black culture in the South. The story of sin, seduction, and salvation stars Daniel L. Haynes as a good man who makes bad decisions, especially when he shares the frame with Nina Mae McKinney, an actress known as "the black Garbo."