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

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

Paperback | 2002 | $37.50 | £31.95 | ISBN: 9780691102832
424 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 66 halftones
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Reviews | Table of Contents

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.


"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

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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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File created: 7/11/2017

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