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The 1929 movie “Hallelujah” gives one glimpse into Memphis’ past

MEMPHIS, Tenn — Through the camera lens of filmmaker King Vidor, the 1929 film "Hallelujah" was billed as a story that will live in your heart forever. But this black and white musical pushed the sound and color boundaries and gave Memphis its place in movie making history forever.

Linn Sitler is the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commissioner.

"It was shot here in 1928 and I think it was released in 1929. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1929," Sitler said.

Hallelujah tells the story of religion versus sin in the deep south. It follows a young sharecropper-turned preacher who must fight the temptations of a beautiful city girl played by actress Nina Mae McKinney.

"Hollywood came all the way to Memphis, Tennessee to undertake such a huge, huge project," Sitler said.

What gives Hallelujah its historical significance, it was one of the first movies to use sound during the silent film era, but even more important King Vidor...a white movie director... fought and pushed MGM studios to feature an entirely black cast, which was unheard of at the time.

Today a historical marker near the Arcade restaurant touts Memphis made movies and includes the achievements of Hallelujah.

"From what I have read, Hallelujah was the first all-black musical," Sitler said.

Inside the Memphis Room at the Benjamin Hooks Public Library, pictures help tell the back story behind the ground breaking film, a film that also gives a glimpse of Memphis' past.

Scenes were shot along the cobblestones, the Wolf River Bottom and other parts of Mid-South.

Not far away from LeMoyne Owen College and on Lenow Street, it's almost hard to believe, but there were plenty of lights, camera and action taking place here.

The film was considered socially progressive in its day attempting to show blacks in a less demeaning way, but many agree there were plenty of stereotypes.

"The challenge with Hallelujah is it's a very controversial film because even though it was nominated for an Oscar and there were a lot of firsts around it, it depicted African-Americans in stereotypes," Sitler said.

At the National Civil Rights Museum, exhibits explore stories of slavery, separate but equal, boycotts, and black power to show the uprising of the civil rights movement.

Faith Morris is the Chief Marketing and External Affairs Officer at the museum.

"Hallelujah, I'm glad we're talking about that. Okay 1929, we really weren't ready, this country wasn't ready to see real images," Morris said.

She says the images of Hallelujah deserve an audience today.

"What is it about the truth about blacks in America that we shouldn't know? Let's know it all. If it's not a true depiction, if it's not really telling the story as it was...then no...keep it buried, but that's not the case here. Why not? Maybe we show it here," Morris said.

The man behind this camera is aspiring Memphis filmmaker, Myron Swift-Parker.

"Yes, this was a film that was a white person's lens into a minority world," Swift-Parker said.

Swift-Parker is a Morehouse College grad and was a part of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival internship program in France last year, and now works at Spotlight Productions.

He says the all black cast opened doors in the movie industry.

"We have to look at the perspective that these actors had. They may not be represented in the way they wish 100 percent, but they had the opportunity to set it up for those who came after," Swift-Parker said.

Hallelujah was named as one of 25 important motion pictures and added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and was even honored with a postal service stamp. Almost 90 years after its premier...Hallelujah... the film made in Memphis... is still generating buzz for its place in history.

"Now is a milestone to make us think about this movie again and I think we're ready," Morris said.