HIST 4077: American Popular Culture
3 May, 2005
Melodrama and Race
Racial tension between blacks and whites in America no doubt arose when the very first slave-ship landed. In Playing the Race Card, Linda Williams argues that this situation serves as a seed for the most popular American melodramas of our time (xiii). Williams supports this claim with an array of popular 'stories'. I find a more accurate description of these stories as a popular topic rather than the central mode in American popular culture. As Williams intended, this book brought me to the conclusion that melodramas of black and white are one of the most popular in America. In addition, Williams brings to light the "Tom" and "anti-Tom" dialogue presented in all racial melodrama to date (301). Williams sees racial melodrama as being the primary mode of Americans ongoing discussion of race. Drawing from class lectures, I hypothesize that the popularity of black and white melodramas stems from the uniqueness of the subject matter American society.
The earliest portrayal of blacks in entertainment came from minstrel shows in early nineteenth century. White minstrel actors in blackface skewed Americans perceptions of slaves. Most notability, T.D. Rice developed a character around this stereotype of blacks known as Jim Crow. From 1829 to 1860, T.D. Rice, somewhat unintentionally, did much to create an image of slaves as very stupid in the way he portrayed black speech, dance, and song. The lighthearted tones of the minstrel acts caused the populace to feel all right about slavery. The slaves seemed happy enough on stage, even though these were all white actors in blackface.
Williams observes both the necessity of the blackface actors and problems they created for Uncle Tom's Cabin (71). On one hand, lighthearted blackface minstrels inhibited Stowe in writing a serious story about a slave. However, without blackface minstrels this story could not have enjoyed the "leaping" into the stage. Only because minstrel shows exposed Americans to blackface could the public understand the blackface characters in Tom plays (78).
Williams creates what I call a meta-drama, a melodrama about melodrama, by juxtaposing each successive "Tom" and "anti-Tom" story as a response to the predecessor. First with Uncle Tom's Cabin compared to early blackface comedy then Birth of a Nation to Uncle Tom's Cabin. This approach satisfies every melodrama examined by Williams including the two legal cases. Williams ties everything together by referring to the "space of innocence" and the melodramatic theme of "too late" and "in the nick of time" in each melodrama studied.
The legal cases inspected are the most compelling of these stories. In relation to the "Tom" and "anti-Tom" paradigm, in both trials the jury perceives the story in direct opposition to the public as a whole (257). In the Rodney King melodrama, the public sees King as a "Tom" who is oppressed by the white officers. The verdict in California v. Powell suggests that the jury saw King as a threat to the white officers, which translates into the black threat to white female virginity as in Birth of a Nation. Similarly and conversely, the case The People v. Orenthal James Simpson, the "anti-Tom" theme is quite clear, while the proceedings lead to a verdict in favor of a "Tom" interpretation (257). The dualistic nature of the Williams' paradigm strangely fits into real life race stories when experience tells us reality is rarely black and white (pun intended to exaggerate the point).
One of the reasons I feel Williams' paradigm holds up so well is its ability to lend itself to dualism, an idea commonplace in melodrama. Another reason we so readily find "Tom" and "anti-Tom" in today's racial melodramas is the everlasting power of racial stereotypes. One striking feature of the Amos and Andy TV show and Sanford and Son we viewed in class is the callback to the old minstrel acts poking fun at blacks portrayed as stupid. While Uncle Tom's Cabin changed Americans' perceptions of blacks, somehow this stereotype remained. In a sense, the only way to remove an old stereotype is not to dwell on it; America only assimilates new ideas and old ideas slowly blend in or fade away.
Up until now, I have not mentioned anything between Birth of a Nation and California v. Powell. Though The Jazz Singer, Show Boat, Gone with the Wind, and Roots do help reinforce Williams' argument, they deserve only a brief mention here. These intermediate stories convey two important ideas. The first idea is the remarkable popularity of racial melodramas and second is the evolution of America's view of racial notions. T.D. Rice's act lasted over thirty years and inspired numerous other black impersonators. Stowe's novel, outsold only by the bible, "leaped" into other media with great success (77). Likewise, Dixon's novels went on to form the most popular screenplay of its time. The Jazz Singer saved Warner Bothers from bankruptcy. Show Boat enjoyed multiple revivals and film reproductions. David O. Selnick's film version of Margaret Mitchell's novel, Gone with the Wind, remains today one of the top all time greatest movies (Emerson). The eight-part miniseries Roots captured America so effectively, restaurants closed during its original airing (220). Alex Haley's saga also marks the first popular story about blacks written by an African American. Before this, landmarks such as the first black actor and the first interracial marriage emerged. Going back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, melodrama gives birth to the first serious story about slavery.
Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation brought a new seriousness to their respective media. Williams attributes the success of these two to the seriousness of the story. These two stories are inarguably serious, but it is the topic of race, which makes them serious. The advantage all these melodramas have is the particular topic of race. For good or bad, the melodramas of black and white are stories only found in America. As discussed in class, race stories like Birth of a Nation not only became blockbusters, but also marked a turning point in American cinema. Before Birth of a Nation, filmmakers borrowed most stories from Europe. American writers write "Tom" and "anti-Tom" stories because there is a fundamental lack for such stories imported from Europe.
Another distinction the trial "Tom" and "anti-Tom" stories receive is the American jury system. After reading Playing the Race Card, certain other idiosyncrasies turn up. Williams shows, the jury system, which varies from the European system, creates added drama. The European trial system "aims at philosophical, idealistic, one-sided notion of truth that is 'absolute and independent of the world of sense - Plato's truth'" while the American system is "dialectical, argumentative, rhetorical truth arrived at ... after all the stories spinnable by the prosecution and the defense have been spun" (263). Again, the particular characteristics of the American condition lead to the success of racial melodramas in America. Future melodramas of black and white will most likely have some new, currently unknown, element unique to America to accentuate the nature of melodrama and racial tensions - maybe immigration or child custody laws.
Anther aspect of Williams' argument is analogous to the idea that when a medium is the premium it tries to present something, that appeal to everyone. Since many of Williams' subjects originally presented themselves on the premium media of its time, this idea visibly manifests itself in her argument. Uncle Tom's Cabin, Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, and Roots all show signs of an appeal to general audiences in one of more of their more popular incarnations. Roots, for example, in the miniseries form, includes white villains played by "TV-friendly faces" to soften the negative view of white characters in an appeal to the larger audience of whites (241). In addition, almost all the fiction melodramas in their popular form have a happy conclusion in comparison to their respective original form. In the novel form of Show Boat, nearly all the principals died as compared to the popular acted versions, which have happy endings (185).
Racial melodrama is the most interesting to Americans because it is a situation not found any ware else. Even today in an age with quasi-equal treatment, stories of "Tom" and "anti-Tom" emerge and captivate American audiences. Williams shows how this American tradition persists. Melodramas of black and white continue to communicate America’s feelings about race.
Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to
O.J. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001
Emerson, Jim. "The 100 Most Acclaimed Movies of All Time." Jeeem's CinePad. 1999. 2 May