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

By Johnson, Stephen | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

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


Johnson, Stephen, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001. xvi + 401 pp.

Linda Williams' new book is a fascinating, and I believe important work. Using the wide variety of theoretical and historical works recently published on the subjects of race and melodrama in America, she takes us on an excursion through the relationship between race relations as a subject and melodrama as a mode of representation. That these two are inextricably intertwined in complicated and problematic ways is hardly a new idea; what is new is the extended and sophisticated synthesis of the literature on the subject, presented in a manner that clarifies without simplifying, and respects the breadth of recent ideas about the relationship within an original argument. Williams follows the relationship through its diverse incarnations in the master narratives of Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Clansman (in their printed, theatrical, variety and cinematic forms), and then shows how these two have informed American popular culture, in The Jazz Singer and Showboat, in Gone With The Wind, through the theatricalised protests of the Civil Rights Movement (albeit briefly), to Roots and the Television trials of O. J. Simpson and Rodney King. Without wishing to sound too melodramatic-I know that the subject of a book can sometimes influence the tone of a review - by taking the long view of the subject, both in terms of time and means of transmission, this book exposes a very American way of viewing and debating race that is more persistent, and more pervasive, in art and in life, than I had suspected.

Chapter One surveys and critiques the writing about melodrama that has inundated the field in both theatre and film studies, and using Peter Brooks's classic work The Melodramatic Imagination as a base, argues that what is being treated is not a genre, but 'a mode of moving pictures' that crosses media and genre distinctions. Using D. W. Griffith's Way Down East and James Cameron's Titanic as 'typical' examples at opposite ends of the twentieth century, Williams establishes what she views as the essential characteristics of the 'mode' of melodrama: a definition of home as 'a place of innocence'; the central role of the Victimhero' as a means to Brooks's idea of 'moral legibility'; a not-always-clearly-delineated dialectic of pathos and action (Williams's useful terminology from her earlier work, of an event being'too late' and 'in the nick of time,' are revived here); a complementary relationship with modes of realism, in which realism can easily co-exist with and serve the intent of melodrama; and, finally, characters defined by a Manichean moral universe of good and evil. The simplicity of this outline belies the subtlety of the application to the two melodramas. These elements are established as a base from which to explore the twists and turns the actual works of art can take, aesthetically, politically, and ethically.

Chapter Two surveys the full range of incarnations of the 'matter' of Uncle Tom, including Harriet Beecher Stowe's own personal vision of a Christlike victimized slave, through novel, illustration, stage and cinematic adaptations. The essential images that Stowe established were the black male slave as victim steeped in pathos, and the black female slave - in the persons of both Eliza and Cassie-who take action, and escape from slavery. In both cases, Williams points out, Stowe's imagery turned on their respective heads both the slave narratives and the sentimental novels of the time, in effect feminizing the male character to make him sympathetic, and empowering the female characters.

That these characters were black constituted a radical shift in perspective, with radical complications as the narrative subsequently moved from medium to medium. The 'place of innocence' essential to the melodrama of the novel was, Williams argues, Africa; but very quickly, in illustration, song, and on stage, the image of the cabin as home took precedence. …

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