“Like many people who watched the October 3, 1995, verdict in the trial of O.J. Simpson, I felt deeply implicated in its drama. . . . [It was] a verdict that sparked unprecedented white resentment,” Linda Williams writes with enticing candor in the preface to Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson, her exploration of the persistent power of melodrama. “I realized that a book I had been writing on the American melodramatic imagination . . . would have to become a book about black and white racial melodrama.”
The domain of the dastardly villain and distressed damsel, the haunt of Peyton Place histrionics and Douglas Sirk arias, the home to Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce, melodrama has often been snubbed by high-culture types even as it’s been taken up into the tender, if constricting, embrace of genre enthusiasts (in particular feminist film critics). For all its sentimental gestures, its saccharine moments, melodrama has always entertained the big questions: virtue and vice, good and evil. “If emotional and moral registers are sounded,” writes Williams on the form’s greedy ambitions, “if a work invites us to feel sympathy for the virtues of the 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.”
From the moment Harriet Beecher Stowe combined the facts of slavery with the devices of 19th-century melodrama to make apparent the virtue of a beaten, God-loving slave, to make real the heartache and desperate flight of a fugitive slave mother, melodrama found its soul mate. And the traumas of black-white relations—the abuses, the conflicts, the enmity—found a reconciling (or, in the case of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, rending) advocate in melodrama.
Melodrama American-style is not “an aberration, archaism, or excess,” Williams argues, “but the fundamental mode by which American mass culture has ‘talked to itself’ about the enduring moral dilemma of race.” Melodrama moves the story of black and white relations. And, in a kind of pulsing circuit, race relations imbue melodrama with a startling potency and relevancy. An awkward but telling testament to the rightness of Williams’s project comes when the author uses D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East and James Cameron’s Titanic to illustrate the changing yet enduring spectacle of the virtuous victim. It is a convincing comparison, yet it pales alongside her race-inflected genealogy of morality plays: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Showboat, Gone With the Wind, Roots, and finally, the criminal trials of O.J. Simpson and the cops that beat Rodney King.
Once Williams engages these texts, her writing decompresses. It even impresses. Like her 1988 book Hard Core, which began a boomlet in porn studies, Playing the Race Card displays Williams’s desire to speak to a broader audience. But the real elegance is in her thinking. Williams enlists a rich metaphor from Henry James to capture the fluid nature of American melodrama. James coined it while pondering the changeling life of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as it leaped from page to stage to the road in hundreds of antebellum traveling Tom shows. The work, he said, was like “a wonderful ‘leaping’ fish.” Racialized melodrama, too, leaps, often transforming the new mediums as it lands. The Birth of a Nation‘s Klan rescue is one of the earliest and best examples of the kind of frenzy film editing could create. The Jazz Singer and Show Boat “represent that moment in American popular culture when . . . American racial melodrama dramatically forged a new musical form in which ‘singing black, feeling black’ became a testament of white virtue.” 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. For instance, melodrama’s bedrock notion of home as a space of innocence—already a source of the form’s conservatism, its tendency toward nostalgic hankerings—becomes an utter conundrum in a nation built on slavery. The very question of this idealized space, especially in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Roots, points to the limitations of melodramatic resolutions. “Melodrama does not always move, then, toward a new future,” Williams reminds us. “Very often it moves to restore some semblance of a lost past.” But where does that leave the ex-slave? What is a space of innocence for the ex-slave owner?
As incandescent as Playing the Race Card can be, it leaves some nagging questions. Why, for instance, is it so easy to become inured to melodrama’s moralizing calls for action? Why does the form behave as much like an opiate as a stimulant? More vexing still: How did the historically documented vision of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (with its clear portrait of the abuse of slaves) get so easily trumped by the paranoid lie at the heart of The Birth of a Nation (the rape of white women by black men)? In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin wrote bitterly of Stowe’s book that “sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart, and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” Baldwin wrote those words for Partisan Review in 1949. He was in a unique position to witness the fact that melodramatic catharsis—even “feelings” of racial empathy—seldom led to appropriate action.
Throughout Playing the Race Card, Williams never discounts the hypocrisy, the brutality, often at work in the melodramatic mode, especially in matters of race. Indeed, her parting thoughts offer a melancholy caveat to what has come before. “I seriously doubt that it will be possible for popular culture to break with melodrama’s obsession with past injury as a way of establishing moral legitimacy,” she writes. We have only to look at the past months’ headlines—the ongoing debates around the Confederate flag, the court battle over the Gone With the Wind parody, the burgeoning reparations movement, the retrying of Ku Klux Klan terrorists—to know we won’t be weaning ourselves from this brand of storytelling any time soon.