In 1929, King Vidor, vaunted director of films like The Big Parade (1925), took a huge risk. He made his first sound film and it was a musical and he made it in the South and he made it with a black cast and it was about sex, murder, and religion. It was such a risk, in fact, that Irving Thalberg (the producer and chairman of MGM at the time) forced Vidor to put up some of his own cash. Vidor believed so deeply in the project that he gave up his entire salary. It paid off: Vidor was nominated for Best Director and the film has been recognized for its significance ever since.
Vidor thought it through. He knew that his first sound musical had to have stellar triple-threats and he discovered the charismatic and talented Nina Mae McKinney in a Broadway chorus. (She was called "the Black Garbo" shortly thereafter.) He continued to recruit from the Broadway stage. He also saw that the advent of sound technology was limiting visual style, so, out of sight of Thalberg, he shot many sequences without sync sound (to be added in post), so that he was able to retain the camera mobility he long enjoyed. Shot on location without these limitations, it stands out as an early sound film.
Don't get me wrong: this isn't perfect. There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments. But it needs to be seen.
—Erin Lee Mock, Director of the Program in Film Studies