Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson

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Overview

The black man suffering at the hands of whites, the white woman sexually threatened by the black man. Both images have long been burned into the American conscience through popular entertainment, and today they exert a powerful and disturbing influence on Americans' understanding of race. So argues Linda Williams in this boldly inquisitive book, where she probes the bitterly divisive racial sentiments aroused by such recent events as O. J. Simpson's criminal trial. Williams, the author of Hard Core, explores how these images took root, beginning with melodramatic theater, where suffering characters acquire virtue through victimization.

The racial sympathies and hostilities that surfaced during the trial of the police in the beating of Rodney King and in the O. J. Simpson murder trial are grounded in the melodramatic forms of Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Birth of a Nation. Williams finds that Stowe's beaten black man and Griffith's endangered white woman appear repeatedly throughout popular entertainment, promoting interracial understanding at one moment, interracial hate at another. The black and white racial melodrama has galvanized emotions and fueled the importance of new media forms, such as serious, "integrated" musicals of stage and film, including The Jazz Singer and Show Boat. It also helped create a major event out of the movie Gone With the Wind, while enabling television to assume new moral purpose with the broadcast of Roots. Williams demonstrates how such developments converged to make the televised race trial a form of national entertainment.

When prosecutor Christopher Darden accused Simpson's defense team of "playing the race card," which ultimately trumped his own team's gender card, he feared that the jury's sympathy for a targeted black man would be at the expense of the abused white wife. The jury's verdict, Williams concludes, was determined not so much by facts as by the cultural forces of racial melodrama long in the making. Revealing melodrama to be a key element in American culture, Williams argues that the race images it has promoted are deeply ingrained in our minds and that there can be no honest discussion about race until Americans recognize this predicament.

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Editorial Reviews

Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences

Williams makes the best theoretical case for descriptive representation for marginalized groups to achieve democratic equality. Her review of democratic theory is both exhaustive and masterful.
— Katherine Tate
Village Voice
But the real elegance is in her thinking. . . . [Williams's writing impresses] wherever melodrama lands, it brings the same set of concerns, an Playing the Race Card is at it protean best when it is tracing these from medium to medium.
— Lisa Kennedy
New York Times Book Review
[Williams] dispenses with the cant and silliness that tangles much academic talk about racial matters. . . . Steeped in the details of text and context, she invites the reader to see familiar works in fresh ways. Williams's achievement is to recapture the complexity of our tangled racial history without sanitizing racism.
— Jonathan Rieder
Choice
Williams offers a fresh and insightful exploration of some of the roots of the American racial dilemma. . . . Well written and persuasively argued.
H-Net Reviews
A work that is extremely valuable to historians who wish to enhance the sophistication of their own thinking about teaching with film and other visual media. . . . I believe the author succeeds at what she sets out to do. In such a large, sweeping, and ambitious book as this, that is high praise indeed.
— Alecia P. Long
American Literature
This book would be valuable just for its scholarly insights, sharp contextual readings, well-selected illustrations, and imaginative genealogy of melodramatic practices across various eras. What gives it special urgency is that by locating those moments when new media (print, film, TV, video) were shaping new ways of conceiving race, Williams creates a moving picture of racial melodrama in the United States that manages to connect the polemic of Uncle Tom's Cabin to the . . . televised O. J. Simpson murder trial
— Kurt Eisen
The Boston Globe
In her intellectually rousing book, Playing the Race Card, Williams find the root of [melodramatic] characterizations throughout American popular culture. . . . Such images, she argues, continue to feed attitudes of racial empathy and enmity. . . . With its thought-provoking analysis and textbook scholarship, Playing the Race Card is a . . . passionately crafted book. But Williams greatest contribution may be liberating a discussion of race from the incendiary rhetoric and polemics that accompany such a discourse. She creates a new dialogue about how popular entertainment has fostered racial sympathy as well as mistrust, and how those images still shape us today.
— Renee Graham
The Historian
Broad and brilliant, a combination rare in serious books these days, Playing the Race Card argues persuasively that melodrama has profoundly affected American attitudes toward race over the last century and a half. . . . Williams's success is to spell out exactly how the melodramatic imagination of our popular culture shapes how we live and understand race in America and how these stories make as well as narrative history.
— Grace Elizabeth Hale
Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Sciences
Williams makes the best theoretical case for descriptive representation for marginalized groups to achieve democratic equality. Her review of democratic theory is both exhaustive and masterful.
— Katherine Tate
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences - Katherine Tate
Williams makes the best theoretical case for descriptive representation for marginalized groups to achieve democratic equality. Her review of democratic theory is both exhaustive and masterful.
Village Voice - Lisa Kennedy
But the real elegance is in her thinking. . . . [Williams's writing impresses] wherever melodrama lands, it brings the same set of concerns, an Playing the Race Card is at it protean best when it is tracing these from medium to medium.
The Boston Globe - Renee Graham
In her intellectually rousing book, Playing the Race Card, Williams find the root of [melodramatic] characterizations throughout American popular culture. . . . Such images, she argues, continue to feed attitudes of racial empathy and enmity. . . . With its thought-provoking analysis and textbook scholarship, Playing the Race Card is a . . . passionately crafted book. But Williams greatest contribution may be liberating a discussion of race from the incendiary rhetoric and polemics that accompany such a discourse. She creates a new dialogue about how popular entertainment has fostered racial sympathy as well as mistrust, and how those images still shape us today.
New York Times Book Review - Jonathan Rieder
[Williams] dispenses with the cant and silliness that tangles much academic talk about racial matters. . . . Steeped in the details of text and context, she invites the reader to see familiar works in fresh ways. Williams's achievement is to recapture the complexity of our tangled racial history without sanitizing racism.
H-Net Reviews - Alecia P. Long
A work that is extremely valuable to historians who wish to enhance the sophistication of their own thinking about teaching with film and other visual media. . . . I believe the author succeeds at what she sets out to do. In such a large, sweeping, and ambitious book as this, that is high praise indeed.
American Literature - Kurt Eisen
This book would be valuable just for its scholarly insights, sharp contextual readings, well-selected illustrations, and imaginative genealogy of melodramatic practices across various eras. What gives it special urgency is that by locating those moments when new media (print, film, TV, video) were shaping new ways of conceiving race, Williams creates a moving picture of racial melodrama in the United States that manages to connect the polemic of Uncle Tom's Cabin to the . . . televised O. J. Simpson murder trial
The Historian - Grace Elizabeth Hale
Broad and brilliant, a combination rare in serious books these days, Playing the Race Card argues persuasively that melodrama has profoundly affected American attitudes toward race over the last century and a half. . . . Williams's success is to spell out exactly how the melodramatic imagination of our popular culture shapes how we live and understand race in America and how these stories make as well as narrative history.
From the Publisher

Finalist for the Theatre Library Association Award for Outstanding Book in Recorded or Broadcast Performance

"Williams makes the best theoretical case for descriptive representation for marginalized groups to achieve democratic equality. Her review of democratic theory is both exhaustive and masterful."--Katherine Tate, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences

"It seems like a long leap to make 'from Lillian Gish to . . . Leonardo Dicaprio and from Uncle Tom to Rodney King,' but in this dazzling, benchmark work . . . Williams does it with panache and enormous insight. . . . This is a vital contribution to American studies as well as film and race studies."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"But the real elegance is in her thinking. . . . [Williams's writing impresses] wherever melodrama lands, it brings the same set of concerns, an Playing the Race Card is at it protean best when it is tracing these from medium to medium."--Lisa Kennedy, Village Voice

"For any honest discussion about race relations in America, [Williams] argues, we must first acknowledge the indeterminate influence of melodrama. Conscientiously researched . . . this insightful book is essential for academic libraries and students in film studies."--Library Journal

"In her intellectually rousing book, Playing the Race Card, Williams find the root of [melodramatic] characterizations throughout American popular culture. . . . Such images, she argues, continue to feed attitudes of racial empathy and enmity. . . . With its thought-provoking analysis and textbook scholarship, Playing the Race Card is a . . . passionately crafted book. But Williams greatest contribution may be liberating a discussion of race from the incendiary rhetoric and polemics that accompany such a discourse. She creates a new dialogue about how popular entertainment has fostered racial sympathy as well as mistrust, and how those images still shape us today."--Renee Graham, The Boston Globe

"[Williams] dispenses with the cant and silliness that tangles much academic talk about racial matters. . . . Steeped in the details of text and context, she invites the reader to see familiar works in fresh ways. Williams's achievement is to recapture the complexity of our tangled racial history without sanitizing racism."--Jonathan Rieder, New York Times Book Review

"Williams offers a fresh and insightful exploration of some of the roots of the American racial dilemma. . . . Well written and persuasively argued."--Choice

"A work that is extremely valuable to historians who wish to enhance the sophistication of their own thinking about teaching with film and other visual media. . . . I believe the author succeeds at what she sets out to do. In such a large, sweeping, and ambitious book as this, that is high praise indeed."--Alecia P. Long, H-Net Reviews

"This book would be valuable just for its scholarly insights, sharp contextual readings, well-selected illustrations, and imaginative genealogy of melodramatic practices across various eras. What gives it special urgency is that by locating those moments when new media (print, film, TV, video) were shaping new ways of conceiving race, Williams creates a moving picture of racial melodrama in the United States that manages to connect the polemic of Uncle Tom's Cabin to the . . . televised O. J. Simpson murder trial"--Kurt Eisen, American Literature
"Broad and brilliant, a combination rare in serious books these days, Playing the Race Card argues persuasively that melodrama has profoundly affected American attitudes toward race over the last century and a half. . . . Williams's success is to spell out exactly how the melodramatic imagination of our popular culture shapes how we live and understand race in America and how these stories make as well as narrative history."--Grace Elizabeth Hale, The Historian

Village Voice
But the real elegance is in her thinking. . . . [Williams's writing impresses] wherever melodrama lands, it brings the same set of concerns, an Playing the Race Card is at it protean best when it is tracing these from medium to medium.
— Lisa Kennedy
The Historian
Broad and brilliant, a combination rare in serious books these days, Playing the Race Card argues persuasively that melodrama has profoundly affected American attitudes toward race over the last century and a half. . . . Williams's success is to spell out exactly how the melodramatic imagination of our popular culture shapes how we live and understand race in America and how these stories make as well as narrative history.
— Grace Elizabeth Hale
The Boston Globe
In her intellectually rousing book, Playing the Race Card, Williams find the root of [melodramatic] characterizations throughout American popular culture. . . . Such images, she argues, continue to feed attitudes of racial empathy and enmity. . . . With its thought-provoking analysis and textbook scholarship, Playing the Race Card is a . . . passionately crafted book. But Williams greatest contribution may be liberating a discussion of race from the incendiary rhetoric and polemics that accompany such a discourse. She creates a new dialogue about how popular entertainment has fostered racial sympathy as well as mistrust, and how those images still shape us today.
— Renee Graham
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences
Williams makes the best theoretical case for descriptive representation for marginalized groups to achieve democratic equality. Her review of democratic theory is both exhaustive and masterful.
— Katherine Tate
Jonathan Rieder
Williams's achievement is to recapture the complexity of our tangled racial history without sanitizing racism....In clarifying our racial past, Williams suggests one way to illuminate our present: refusing to let foolish notions of difference obscure the lively entanglement that still links blacks and whites, and the vital mixed-up cultural life it continues to sustain.
New York Times Book Review
Lisa Kennedy
Wherever melodrama lands, it brings the same set of concerns, and Playing the Race Card is at its protean best when it is tracing these from medium to medium.
Village Voice
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It seems like a long leap "from Lillian Gish to... Leonardo DiCaprio and from Uncle Tom to Rodney King," but in this dazzling, benchmark work, noted cultural historian and critic Williams makes it with panache and enormous insight. Investigating contemporary racial strife embodied in the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson trials, Williams (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible) argues that centuries-old racial and sexual myths and representations are central to U.S. culture and politics. Exploring with acuity and empathy the many permutations of racial stereotypes (e.g., the black sexual predator and the white female victim in Birth of a Nation and elsewhere, and their social and political meanings over the past 150 years), Williams navigates a maze of American popular culture from Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jazz Singer and Show Boat to Roots and Bill T. Jones's Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin. Always provocative, Williams eschews simple explanations and easy liberal or conservative platitudesas in her complicated analysis of the relationship between Jewish assimilation and blackface in The Jazz Singer and of the marketing for Gone with the Wind in Southern states (at age 10, Martin Luther King Jr. performed as a "slave" at a gala celebration of the film). Williams's astounding range of sources and attendant critical literature (she is professor of film studies at UC-Berkeley) is as impressive as her ability to synthesize and interpret so much information without undermining its emotional and artistic impact. This is a vital contribution to American studies as well as film and race studies. Photos and illus. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691102832
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/3/2002
  • Pages: 408
  • Sales rank: 1,255,827
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The American Melodramatic Mode


As a modality, melodrama organizes the disparate sensory phenomena, experiences, and contractions of a newly emerging secular and atomizing society in visceral, affective and morally explanatory terms.

Christine Gledhill


"Melodramatic, Melodramatic, Terribly So!"


    In 1853, the year after she had become a celebrity with the publication of her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe embarked upon a tour of Europe. In a book of letters describing her travels, she narrates a visit to Windsor Castle. Passing unmoved before a succession of paintings by such masters as Van Dyke and Caneletto, she suddenly finds herself transfixed before a marble monument by an unnamed sculptor. It is a scene depicting the death of the Princess Charlotte, daughter of King George IV. Stowe describes the sculpture in great detail. On the terrestrial side, the princess has just "thrown herself over in a convulsion, and died" (Stowe 1854, 2:45). Around her are four figures bowed in mute despair. On the celestial side, however, the princess's spirit is seen to rise toward heaven. "Two angels, one carrying her infant child and the other with clasped hands of exultant joy, are rising with her, in serene and solemn triumph" (45).

    Stowe and her party shed tears before the "unutterable pathos and beauty" of a monument depicting the sorrow of death and the triumph of afterlife (46). Soon after, however, she finds her taste challengedbyprecisely the kind of refined cultural authority she has come to England to encounter. A cultivated artist, the sort who "knows all that is proper to be admired," informs her that the statue is a "shocking thing" in "miserable taste" (46). Alarmed, Stowe inquires what is wrong with it; the artist informs her, as if there could be nothing more to say, that it is "melodramatic, melodramatic, terribly so!" (47)

    In midcentury England, a cultivated artist would indeed have condemned the histrionic pathos of such a statue as "melodramatic." In invoking this term he would have meant very much what we mean by it today: a seemingly archaic excess of sensation and sentiment, a manipulation of the heartstrings that exceeds the bounds of good taste. No doubt if this same artist had read Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, or seen any of its stage productions already sweeping Stowe's home country, he would have deplored a similar "miserable taste" encountered in the terrestrial pathos and celestial triumph in the deaths of her Little Eva and Uncle Tom.

    What interests me in this anecdote is not only the familiar high culture contempt for the presumed "excesses" of the "melodramatic," but Stowe's desire to present herself as not quite comprehending what it means. She first reports that she is "so appalled by the word, of whose meaning I had not a very clear idea, that I dropped the defence at once and determined to reconsider my tears. To have been actually made to cry by a thing that was melodramatic was a distressing consideration" (2:45-47). At the same time, however, she vehemently defends the unsophisticated cultural consumer against the judgment of experts: "A thing may be melodramatic, or any other atic that a man pleases; so that it be strongly suggestive, poetic, pathetic, it has a right to its own peculiar place in the world of art" (47). Without specifically taking up the defense of the term, Stowe nevertheless defends the right of an artist to break the "classical" rules of unity and decorum even if it means "being melodramatic." After all, where would "Shakespeare's dramas have been, had he studied the old dramatic unities?" (48).

    Stowe's folksy and democratic defense of such a "melodramatic" "moving" picture is typical of the ad hoc nature of many attempts to defend melodrama. While unwilling categorically to defend the word, Stowe nevertheless defends an art of strong pathos and action that recognizes the virtues of suffering victims. Her gesture of disavowing participation in a mode of representation that has been universally condemned as manipulative and spurious but which, in this unique case, seems justified has been frequently repeated by popular artists and critics from Stowe's day to the present. Typically, when an emotionally powerful work is deemed good it is seen to "transcend" melodrama; when not, it is inevitably the melodrama that prevents it from being so. According to this system it is rarely possible to invoke melodrama as the source of a work's power unless this melodrama is judged ironic or what film scholars like to call "Sirkian."

    Today, as in the mid-nineteenth century, the word melodrama seems to name an archaic form—what vulgar, naive audiences of yesteryear thrilled to, not what we sophisticated realists and moderns (and postmoderns) enjoy today. Yet melodrama remains the most accurate name for what all these and many, many more moving pictures do, and melodrama is, in the eyes of most critics who have studied it closely, fundamentally modern. Indeed, melodrama perpetually arises from the ashes of critical disrepute to demand an ad hoc defense of its popular appeal, yet it never quite receives the full description and analysis that its sheer power to move generation after generation warrants. Sometimes, as with Stowe, these ad hoc defenses operate against the classical and neoclassical strictures of good taste and high art in the name of sentiment; sometimes they operate against the values of realism in the name of stylistic "excess." Within the field of cinema studies, a field that will concern us in this chapter, the defense of melodrama has often been marshaled against something that has been called both classical and realist, as in the eminently confusing category "classical realist" cinema.

    It is the primary thesis of this chapter that melodrama is neither archaic nor excessive but a perpetually modernizing form that can neither be clearly opposed to the norms of the "classical" nor to the norms of realism. Melodrama, in fact, is precisely what most people mean when, like Stowe, they rise to the defense of "pictures"—whether literal or metaphorical—that move them to powerful sentiments. Only the disrepute of the term has prevented, and still prevents, the categorization of "moving pictures" as melodrama, and the categorization of melodrama as modern.

    By what better name, however, shall we refer to those novels, stories, stage plays, movies, songs, and media events that move us to sympathy for the sufferings of the virtuous? I argue that melodrama is still the best, and most accurate, description of the serious narrative and iconic work performed by popular American mass culture, broadly conceived. Melodrama endures not only as an archaic holdover of the nineteenth-century stage play (and its virtuous victims and leering villains) and not only in soap operas and disease-of-the-week TV movies, but as an evolving mode of storytelling crucial to the establishment of moral good.

    A corollary thesis to be explored later is that while it is possible to study melodrama as it has evolved in a single medium—as, for example, in the nineteenth-century stage or the twentieth-century film—it may be more appropriate to its dynamic and protean nature to see it as a broad aesthetic mode existing across many media and in certain interpenetrating narrative cycles. Once again, however, Harriet Beecher Stowe can instruct us and lead us into that place in American culture where melodrama has been paramount. When Henry James described Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as a "wonderful 'leaping' fish," effortlessly flying from one medium to another. James was evoking a version of the play produced by P. T. Barnum, one of whose set pieces pictured the fleeing mulatta slave Eliza, incarnated by an actress with a memorable "swelling bust," whose flight across the ice of the Ohio River was "intrepidly and gracefully performed." James recalls how "we lived and moved at that time, with great intensity, in Mrs. Stowe's novel." Yet he also insists that it was not in the novel alone that this intense living and moving took place but in all manner of derivative pictures, exemplified for us by this image of Eliza's flight reproduced on a late-nineteenth-century cigar box (Fig. 1.1). As James explains, for an immense number of people Uncle Tom was "much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness" (James 1941, 159-60). As we shall see in Chapter 2, this "state of vision" and "feeling" was inseparable from an incendiary revolutionary sympathy felt by whites toward the sufferings of blacks.

    James's insight about this most important American melodrama of the nineteenth century can be extended to the whole of the melodramatic tradition. Melodrama, too, is a "wonderful 'leaping' fish," reformulating itself as a configuration of "moving pictures" alighting first in one medium, then another, functioning, whether on the page, stage, or screen as "a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness." Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, melodrama "leaps" from one spectacular, popular manifestation to another. Although it can be and has been viewed as a genre, for the purposes of this book it will be best understood as a fundamental mode of popular American "moving pictures." Sentimental novels painted metaphorical pictures of pathos and action that moved readers to strong emotions and occasionally even to action. The melodramatic stage, in contrast, delighted in the construction of literal moving pictures and even found a powerful emotional emphasis in the freezing of these pictures into still tableaux of the narrative's most intense moments. In the twentieth century, the predominant moving pictures before the arrival of television are, of course, "the movies" themselves—pictures that literally move and that move their viewers emotionally in turn. Today, the heritage of moving picture melodrama shapes not only fictional films and television but the media representation of war, athletic competitions, and courtroom trials. These diverse forms of melodrama have moved American readers and audiences throughout the last century and a half of American popular culture to feel for the virtue of some and against the villainy of others.

    The goal of this first chapter will be to represent some of the most familiar and recognizable features of a melodramatized media in the twentieth century through an overview of the form of moving pictures with which we are most familiar today: popular American movies. I begin my discussion of melodrama in this chapter with the movies because they represent some of the most accessible examples of American popular culture and because the movies are, as Nicholas Vardac long ago showed, the twentieth-century inheritors of the stage melodrama (Vardac 1949).

    Studies of the nineteenth-century stage in France, England, and the United States have established the international existence of an amazingly protean theatrical form that dominated the popular theater and offered a crucial means of "resolving" the many contradictions of modern life. While the study of the melodramatic stage proper has been crucial to the understanding of the importance and reach of melodrama, there is a danger in locating it too firmly on the stage and in the too-far-distant past. Henry James's somewhat condescending memory of Eliza's "swelling bust" as she negotiated the theatrical ice blocks is a case in point. Melodrama is often referred to as occupying the childhood of the nation, or, as in the case of James, the childhood of individual readers or viewers. Yet as Peter Brooks's study of the melodramatic imagination of James's own fiction has shown, melodrama does not reside in any essential way in the theater, and it can often be found in works, such as those of James, otherwise thought to represent the height of subtlety and psychological realism. I will have much to say in the next chapter about the specifically melodramatic theatrical tradition that reigned supreme in American popular culture in a wide variety of forms from the 1820s through the 1870s. It would be a mistake, however, to perceive a form as contemporaneously vital and adaptable as melodrama as only a reprise of the supposedly archaic emotional forms of the nineteenth-century stage. If emotional and moral registers are sounded, if a work invites us to feel sympathy for the virtues of beset victims, if the narrative trajectory is ultimately concerned with a retrieval and staging of virtue through adversity and suffering, then the operative mode is melodrama. The kind of novelistic, theatrical, or cinematic realism that introduces the look and feel of real city streets, contemporary social problems, or more complex psychological motives is perfectly compatible with what needs to be regarded as an ever-modernizing melodrama.

    Consider the case of the 1996 Olympics, whose reporting by NBC may well prove to be a landmark in the contemporary melodramatization of American sports. In these Olympics, as many commentators have remarked, the story was not only in the (time-delayed) presentation of the action of competition, but in the way that action combined with the pathos of each athlete's story of overcoming adversity. Swimmer Tom Dolan did not just swim a terrific 400-meter individual medley; the action of that competition was combined in the NBC coverage with the pathos of the much-publicized fact that his asthma gave him much less oxygen than other swimmers. Gymnast Kerri Strug did not just perform a great vault to push the U.S. women's gymnastic team to victory; she landed in great pain on an injured leg and attempted to overcome that pain with a smile. This "vault over adversity" would come to be called the "defining moment" of the whole games (as seen from a certain U.S.-centric, melodramatic point of view). Another such "defining moment" occurred when former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali overcame the adversity of his mute, Parkinson's-afflicted body to light the Olympic flame and become, in dramatic contrast to his once defiant, anti-mainstream politics, everybody's favorite American.

    Although many "pure" sports lovers objected to this emotional "feminization" of the Olympics—not to mention the feminization of a once supermacho black nationalist—the astronomical ratings won many nonpurists, especially women, to the spectacle. If the form of melodrama was old and familiar, recognizable as a cliché to all, NBC had nevertheless succeeded in applying pathos to realms of action that made an old form seem new. Something of the same kind of novelty was at work, I suspect, when Henry James encountered the melodramatic "moving picture" of a maiden in distress in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The cliché was hardly new, even to James's "small boy." What was new, however, was its novel object of sympathy: not simply the conventional maiden-in-distress of melodrama, but a mulatta slave escaping bondage. This sympathy for another grounded in the manifestation of that person's suffering is arguably a key feature of all melodrama. Here again, however, we find melodrama modernizing and renewing itself with new objects of sympathy embedded within new social problems, new contexts for pathos and action, and new media. We should not be fooled, then, by James's nostalgic memories of the quaint features of the mode into thinking that melodrama itself is passé. Though its roots are in the theater, melodrama exceeds the limits of the theatrical. Its genius lies in its protean ability to "leap" across centuries and media, to make jaded readers, audiences, and viewers thrill to ever new forms of pathos and action.


"Classical" Cinema vs. Melodrama


In the field of film studies melodrama has often been regarded as a genre, or subgroup of films, situated within the larger film style called variously "classical" Hollywood or "classical realist" cinema. In this field, melodrama has rather consistently been characterized as a narrow and particular exception to the "classical" norm, either in its emotional and scenic "excesses" or in its peculiar address to female audiences. Further specified into subcategories of melodrama known as "women's films," "weepies," and "family melodramas," melodrama has not been viewed, as I wish to see it here, in its more general and pervasive operation as a mode of representation with a particular moralizing function operating across many genres. Thus film critics have tended to establish a rigid polarity between, on the one hand, bourgeois, classical realist (often masculine) "norms" and, on the other hand, anti-realist, melodramatic (often feminine) "excesses." One problem with this approach is that it defines melodrama in opposition to a cinematic "classicism" that quickly evaporates under close scrutiny. The generic category of melodrama has been so consistently identified in recent years with women's concerns that its central relation to what Christine Gledhill has called the "great tradition of humanist realism" was never investigated except as an oppositional excess.

    Missing in many of these previous approaches to cinematic melodrama is the sense in which it has been the norm, rather than the exception, of American cinema. American movies, like most forms of popular storytelling, have been popular because of their ability to seem to resolve basic moral contradictions at a mythic level-whether conflicts between garden and civilization typical of the western, or between family-love and ambition-career typical of the biopic, the "family melodrama," and the gangster film. Film critics have often not seen the forest of melodrama-the sense in which all these genres, and many more, partake of a basic melodramatic mode-for the trees of these individual genres. They have not seen the way in which melodrama constitutes the larger cultural mode driving the articulation of specific genres. In a related way, they have also been blinded to the larger entity of melodrama in their concern to distinguish it from realism. We need, as Christine Gledhill (1987, 2000) has urged, a general study of melodrama as a broadly important cultural mode inherited from the nineteenth-century stage, in tension with and transformed by infusions of realism-whether of content or form—yet best understood as melodrama.

    Melodrama can be viewed, then, not as a genre, an excess, or an aberration, but as what most often typifies popular American narrative in literature, stage, film, and television when it seeks to engage with moral questions. It is the best example of American culture's (often hypocritical) attempt to construct itself as the locus of innocence and virtue. If we want to confront the centrality of melodrama to American moving-picture culture, we must first turn to the most basic forms of melodrama, and not, as many feminist critics—myself included—have previously done, to a ghetto subgenre of "women's films." Rather, we must seek out the dominant features of an American melodramatic mode. For if melodrama has been classified in film studies as a sentimental genre for women, it is partly because other melodramatic genres, for example the western and gangster films that received early legitimacy in film study, had already been constructed, as Christine Gledhill notes, in relation to supposedly masculine cultural values (1987, 35).

    Narrative cinema as a whole has been theorized as a realist, inherently masculine medium whose "classical" features were supposedly anathema to its melodramatic infancy and childhood. Thus, while narrative silent cinema has always been recognized as melodrama at some level, the "essential" art and language of cinema has not. Melodrama has been viewed either as that which the "classical" cinema has grown up out of, or that to which it sometimes regresses. However, as Gledhill notes, well into the sound era, industrial exhibition categories continued to assert the melodramatic base of most genres. The names of these categories are themselves revealing: western melodrama, crime melodrama, sex melodrama, backwoods melodrama, romantic melodrama, and so on. (Gledhill 1987, 35). What is striking in the above examples is the way the noun melodrama functions to denote a certain form of exciting, sensational, and, above all, moving story that could then be further differentiated by more specifications of setting or milieu and/or genre. It is this basic sense of melodrama as a modality of narrative with a high quotient of pathos and action to which we need to attend if we are to confront its most fundamental appeal.

    Perhaps the most influential work contributing to the understanding of melodrama as a vital cultural form has been Peter Brooks's The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, James and the Mode of Excess. Brooks offers a valuable appreciation of the historical origins of the nineteenth-century melodramatic project. This appreciation is still the best grounding for an understanding of its carryover into twentieth-century mass culture. Brooks takes melodrama seriously as a quintessentially modern (though not modernist) mode. He sees it arising historically out of a "post-sacred" world where traditional imperatives of truth and morality had been violently questioned and yet in which there was still a need to forge some semblance of truth and morality (Brooks 1976, 15). Brooks's central thesis is that the quest for a hidden moral legibility is crucial to all melodrama. In the absence of a traditional moral and social order linked to the sacred, and in the presence of a reduced private and domestic sphere that has increasingly become the entire realm of personal significance, a theatrical form of sensation developed that carried the burden of expressing what Brooks calls the "moral occult"—"the domain of operative spiritual values which is both indicated within and masked by the surface of reality" (Brooks 1996, 5).

    The theatrical function of melodrama's big sensation scenes was to be able to put forth a moral truth in gesture and picture that could not be fully spoken in words. Brooks interestingly shows, in fact, that the rise of melodrama was linked to the ban on speech in unlicensed French theaters, which originally turned to pantomime as a more powerful and direct form of communication. Typically the "unspeakable" truth revealed in the sensation scene is the revelation of who is the true villain, and who the innocent victim, of some plot. The revelation occurs as a spectacular, moving sensation. That is, it is felt as sensation, and not simply registered as ratiocination in the cause-effect logic of narrative, because it shifts to a different register of signification, often bypassing language altogether. Music, gesture, pantomime, and, I would add, most forms of sustained physical action are the elements of these sensational effects most familiar to us today in film, television, and musical theater.

    Despite the fact that Brooks's study works hard to give melodrama its due, rather than to treat it as failed tragedy or as realism manque, his subtitle, The Mode of Excess, betrays the sense in which it is seen as a deviation from more "classical" realist norms. "Excess" for Brooks is ultimately the triumph of desire over reality, "a plenitude of meaning" that restores melodramatic subjects to a fullness of expression. As in the psychoanalytic theory that serves as his ultimate model of melodrama, the payoff is in the final ability of the mode to speak the unspeakable, to express the inexpressible, even in novelists with realist reputations like Balzac and James.

    Adapting Brooks, Christine Gledhill has argued that melodrama typically seizes upon the social problems of everyday reality—problems such as illegitimacy, slavery, racism, labor struggles, class division, disease, nuclear annihilation, genocide. All the afflictions and injustices of the modern post-enlightenment have been dramatized in melodramatic form. Part of the excitement of the mode is the genuine turmoil and timeliness of the issues it takes up and the popular debate it can generate when it explores controversies not yet placed on the agenda of liberal humanism. Thus melodrama differs from realism in its will to force the status quo to yield signs of moral legibility within the limits of the "ideologically permissible," even as it builds upon genuine social concerns (Gledhill 1987, 38). The French, of course, have a long tradition of classical tragedy which led them to believe that the "norms" of literature and theater are antithetical to melodrama. Americans, however, have a very different set of norms. Whether we look at the novelistic romances of Hawthorne, Stowe, or Twain, the popular theater of David Belasco, George Aiken, Augustin Daly, or Dion Boucicault, the silent films of D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, or Frank Borzage, the sound films of John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, or James Cameron, the most common thread running through them is not simply a lack of realism or an "excess" of sentiment, but the combined function of realism, sentiment, spectacle, and action in effecting moral legibility. Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, Stowe's Uncle Tom, Twain's Jim and Huck, Ford's searcher, Spielberg's E.T., Elliot, and Schindler, and Cameron's Rose and Jack all share the common function of revealing moral good in a world where virtue has become hard to read.

    The bad reputation of melodrama in American popular culture derives, like the derision of the "cultivated artist" who deplored Harriet Beecher Stowe's taste, from the sense that such emotional displays of virtue necessarily cheapen a more stoical (and sternly masculine) morality. Ann Douglas's (1977) study of nineteenth-century American culture, for example, traces the long process by which a rigorous Calvinist morality was supplanted by what she views as a cheaply sentimental "feminization" of American culture carried out by ministers and lady novelists. Using Little Eva's death in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as her melodramatic touchstone, Douglas argues that a wholesale debasement of American culture took place in the idealization of feminine qualities of piety, virtue, and passive suffering. Douglas opposes a popular literature of "excessive" feminine sentimentalism to a high canonical literature—Melville, Thoreau, Whitman—that was masculine and active but never fully popular. Her study of the feminization of nineteenth-century American culture is a study of how a masculine "high" culture was feminized and degraded. Douglas thus blames the increased anti-intellectualism and consumerism of American culture on a facile cultural feminism.

    Rather than blame the excesses of a feminizing melodrama, however, we need to investigate the reasons for its popularity: the search for moral legibility in an American context that was increasingly unattainable in the belief system of Calvinist election. We need also to recognize that melodrama is only in some of its manifestations an exclusively sentimental, feminine form. The sensationalism of which it partakes can be seen as part of a larger phenomenon by which sensational pathos and action—the sufferings of innocent victims and the exploits of brave heroes or monstrous criminals—become the focus of cultural attention. Karen Halttunen has shown, for example, that the rise of sensational accounts of crime in American culture in the early nineteenth century was the result of a shift that took place once the manifestation of good or evil could no longer be attributed to God's providential power (Halttunen 1998, 47). Where crime, murder, and excruciating suffering had once been explicable as proof of the inherently sinful nature of the human soul and were thus unworthy of detailed attention, new interest developed in the sensational details of pain, suffering, and crime in early nineteenth-century America. Where previously the accounts of sensational incidents had been offered in the form of "execution sermons" interested only in the state of the soul of condemned prisoners on the way to meet their makers, in the early nineteenth century, secular narratives routinely invoked liberal humanist explanations for violent acts that just as routinely failed to understand the deeper mysteries of why crimes were committed. Halttunen argues that in this period sensational, horrifying details were increasingly invoked in place of explanation for the acts of criminals. In place of the religious understanding of the "common sinner," modern secular American culture produced new conventions for the account of lurid, sensational crime. These conventions of sensationalism produced a popular culture fascinated with pain and suffering. Murder narratives increasingly sought, Halttunen argues, not only to report intense excitement and horror, but to incite it in readers of the news (73).

    Gothic horror, as we shall see, is the flip side of melodramatic pathos. In the American context the end of Calvinist moral and religious certainty about the power of God and the sinning nature of the human soul gave rise to a modern fascination with, on the one hand, the spectacle of the good person who suffers and, on the other hand, the evil person who creates suffering. Mass culture melodrama and mass culture horror (not to mention the simultaneous rise of mass culture pornography) would prove to be the quintessential modern forms created to fill the void opened up by the loss of religious certainty. There are important gender issues to bring to bear upon all three of these sensational genres, considered as genres— most significantly the traditional feminization of the suffering body (Williams 1991). It is clear, however, that "feminization" does little to explain the deeper cultural reasons for the rise of sensationalism in American mass culture in general and the rise of the particular appeal of melodrama as a means to establish a compensatory moral legibility. So while the historical waning of Calvinist morality in America might be seen to function much like the end of the sacred in Brooks's French-based model, it is important to recognize the differences between American sensationalist melodrama and that produced by the French. In a country with a much less established tradition of high art and letters than Europe, it is not surprising that sensationalist melodrama in the United States became so popular. However, while England had Dickens, and France had Hugo—both melodramatists who were also in some sense "great" writers—America had Stowe, a writer who has never been given much credit as a writer. Writing, however, has never been the essence of melodrama. Its sensations are the means to something more important: the achievement of a felt good, the merger—perhaps even the compromise—of morality and feeling into empathically imagined communities forged in the pain and suffering of innocent victims, and in the actions of those who seek to rescue them.

    Recent American film scholars have attempted to recuperate emotionality and sensationalism from the status of excess. Tom Gunning, for example, has rehabilitated the term "attraction" in order to address the emotional and sensational side of cinema spectatorship. Gunning borrows the term from Sergei Eisenstein's celebration of spectacles with particularly strong sensual or psychological impact and the ability to aggressively grab and move spectators. The acknowledgment of the existence of a "cinema of attractions" different from the linear narrative of the "classical realist text" has fruitfully called attention to the spectacle side of cinematic visual pleasures in early cinema. However, when the term simply posits the existence of some ideological "other" that "escapes" the dominant ideology of the classical, it remains implicated in the putative dominance of the "classical."

    Another film critic to argue for the importance of melodrama is Rick Altman. Questioning a long tradition of film theory and criticism that, ever since Bazin, has described mainstream sound cinema as "classical," Altman ponders the very "classicism" of the classical. Arguing in particular against Bordwell, Thompson, and Staiger's notion of an enduring classical tradition of rule-bound invisible storytelling, self-effacing craftsmanship, and causality motivated by character, Altman points out that this description cannot accommodate much of the spectacle, "flagrant" display, showmanship, and "artistic motivation" of melodrama.

    The notion that the "classical" Hollywood narrative subordinates spectacle, emotion, and attraction to the logic of personal causality and cause and effect assumes that the "action" privileged by the classical mode is not in itself spectacular. However, we have only to look at what is playing at the local multiplex to realize that the familiar Hollywood feature of prolonged climactic action is, and I would argue has always been, a melodramatic spectacle fully consonant with Gunning's notion of "attraction," and with Altman's notion of "flagrant" display, no matter how goal-driven or embedded within narrative it may be. Indeed, nothing is more sensational in American cinema than the infinite varieties of rescues, accidents, chases, and fights. These "masculine" action-centered climaxes may be scrupulously motivated or wildly implausible depending on the film. While usually faithful to the laws of motion and gravity, this realism of action should not fool us into thinking that the dominant mode of such films is realism. Nor should the virility of action itself fool us into thinking that it is not melodrama.

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Table of Contents


Illustrations ix
Preface xiii
Acknowledgments xvii
Introduction: Playing the Race Card 3
Chapter One: The American Melodramatic Mode 10
Chapter Two: ''A Wonderful, 'Leaping ’Fish'': Varieties of Uncle Tom 45
Chapter Three: Anti-Tom and The Birth of a Nation 96
Chapter Four: Posing as Black, Passing as White: The Melos of Black and White Melodrama in the Jazz Age 136
Chapter Five: Rewriting the Plantation Legend: Scarlett ''Totes a Weary Load'' 187
Chapter Six: Home Sweet Africa: Alex Haley's and TV's Roots 220
Chapter Seven: Trials of Black and White: California v. Powell and The People v. Orenthal James Simpson 252
Conclusion: Our Melodramatic Racial Fix 296
Notes 311
Bibliography 369
Index 385
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