Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness

Daniel Bernardi, (ed.) Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. ISBN: 08166 3239 1. 516pp. US$24.95
(Review copy supplied by Minnesota University Press)

Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. ISBN: 0 691 10283 X. 401pp. US$16.95
(Review copy supplied by Princeton University Press)

In a recent survey of the Cinema Studies field ominously entitled “A phantom discipline” (PMLA 116, no.5 [2001], 1386-1395), Rey Chow bemoans the hegemonic hold identity politics has on research, citing Dudley Andrews’s observation that nearly half the over four hundred papers at the previous year’s Society for Cinema Studies conference were dominated by such issues. Linda Williams’s Playing the Race Card and Daniel Bernardi’s Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness are surely part of this lineage. In her jeremiad, Chow characterizes the emphasis on identity as a deplorable development driven by a concern to see oneself represented realistically. She argues that, “By insisting that artificial images somehow correspond to the lives and histories of cultural groups, identity politics implicitly reinvests such images with anthropomorphic realism – the very thing that the iconoclasm of film, as its early theorists observed, undid.” Yet, neither Williams’s monograph nor the articles collected in Bernardi’s anthology could fairly be characterized as narrow efforts to police the “realism” of “representations.” Indeed, although many of us might share Chow’s dislike of efforts to reduce cinema to reflection, these two excellent works demonstrate that there is much more than reflection at stake in the unflagging interest of scholars in identity and cinema.

Both volumes build on and extend the projects of earlier works. Bernardi’s anthology takes off where his earlier anthology on early US cinema, The Birth of Whiteness, left off. The starting point for Playing the Race Card is Williams’s longstanding interest in revising theories of melodrama. Her consistent argument has been that melodrama was subject to misogynist dismissal as a genre of little importance, but that it is in fact a mode rather than a genre. As such, it can be found animating narratives in a wide range of genres, including westerns, thrillers, and action films. In the first chapter of her new book, she stakes a further claim for melodrama as the American narrative mode par excellence, and for the racialization of melodrama as the key component of its Americanization. Operating precisely against a reflectionist understanding of cinematic and other narratives, she claims that American melodrama is a framework overdetermining the understanding of human affairs that has structured and continues to structure the American people’s response to public events concerning race. Not for nothing does the book begin with Uncle Tom and end with the trial of O.J. Simpson. In between, Williams revisits and reinvigorates our understanding of such classics as The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915), The Jazz Singer (USA 1927), Show Boat (USA 1936), Gone with the Wind (USA 1939) and the television series Roots (USA 1977). The result is a foundation text that will surely be essential reading for everyone who is interested in American cinema and race issues in the United States.

At the core of melodrama is the drive to locate innocence, usually in the figure of a victim. In her investigations, Williams finds that two figures of innocence appear repeatedly in the American melodrama – the beaten and enslaved black man and the threatened white woman. These two figures have been tied to each other in the popular American imagination to produce a fundamentally unstable pairing. So long as the white woman is imagined as endangered by the black man, this licenses his further oppression, which in turn produces him as the melodramatic victim. Williams’s research leaves little doubt that this pairing stretches from Uncle Tom and Little Eva to OJ and Nicole. However, a strength of the book that makes it even more engaging is her careful attention to the dynamic and protean qualities of this pattern as a generative trope, as for example in blackface and cross-ethnic deployments in The Jazz Singer and Show Boat. Rather than tracing its repetitions from one instance to another, Williams pays careful attention to the specificities of each instance of its citation and recitation to note how it plays differently in different historical circumstances and with different stage and film versions of the texts in question, simultaneously serving the purposes and limiting the imaginative options of the players involved.

The essays collected in Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness are many and various, bound together by the focus on the classical studio era from the invention of sound to the 1960s. Like Williams’s book, they range far beyond a mere concern with realistic representation of one or other ethnic group. In his introduction, Bernardi claims that despite the considerable diversity of the essays included in the volume, a common project binds them together. This is not the idea that racial “representations” were inaccurate during the studio era and need to be corrected. Rather, it is based on the insight derived from critical race studies that the idea of “whiteness” has nothing to do with mimesis. Instead, it is repeatedly constructed and reinforced by discourse-producing institutions such as Hollywood as a “norm by which all ‘Others’ fail by comparison”, thus making it “synonymous with racism”. Therefore the goal of scholarship such as that collected here “is to eject the [racial] formation from the driver’s seat so that the meaning of race is no longer a determining factor in our history” (xviii). This is a goal that I think it is fair to say Williams’s book shares.

Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness includes a total of nineteen essays, too many to discuss in individual detail here. However, I will outline the main concerns of each essay to illustrate the great range of this collection, which will make it useful for classroom teaching and of interest to all scholars working on this and related topics. The book is divided into four sections, which investigate the connections between race and class, gender, war, and industry, the last referring to the institutional and industrial operations of the studio system itself. In the first section, Nicholas Sammond and Chandra Mukerji’s essay on the Marx Brothers echoes some of Williams’s observations on The Jazz Singer to show how the films stage a conflict between European snobbery and the popular culture of migrants to the United States so as to align migrants with the United States and against Europe. This works to allay fears that American audiences might have had about non-Anglo migrants. Also in this section, Aaron Baker looks at the deployment of black athletes in sports films; Eric Avila examines the parallels between the rise of the science fiction film with its fear of the Other and the “white flight” phenomenon of relocation from the inner city to the suburbs; and Gina Marchetti provides an ingenious and engaging analysis of the displacement of class onto race and sexuality in Son of the Gods (USA 1930).

The second section of the anthology focuses on gender. Allison Graham considers the very particular whiteness of the southern white woman in an analysis of The Three Faces of Eve (USA 1957), Karen Wallace looks at stereotyping of Native Americans; and Thomas Wartenberg returns to the debates on King Kong (USA 1933) to argue that it critiques Hollywood representations of the black male. Three essays consider the careers of particular female stars of colour. Marguerite H. Rippy examines Dorothy Dandridge as victim of white society’s contradictory desires to sample black female exoticism and at the same time erase difference to accommodate Dandridge within the paradigms of white female beauty. Joanne Hershfield’s “Dolores del Rio, uncomfortably real” examines how del Rio’s career was determined (and limited) by the Hollywood’s need as an industry at once American and transnational to negotiate the preferences of majority white American audiences for an exoticism that was almost white with the demands of the growing Latin American market, which was uncomfortable with many of the values and ideas about Latin America that circulated without problem in the United States. Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong look at France Nguyen in their essay on The World of Suzie Wong (UK 1960). However, their main project follows Hershfield’s extension of scholarship to consider Hollywood reception overseas by focusing on local Hong Kong readings of the film. These are divided between expatriate understanding of the film as “authentic” and (surprise, surprise) less convinced responses from the Chinese population of Hong Kong.

Under the rubric of “war,” Roberta E. Pearson returns to the question of Native Americans in classic Hollywood addressed earlier by Wallace; Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon look at how divisions within whiteness are portrayed in Civil War films; Karla Rae Fuller looks at Hollywood’s efforts to construct different images of Chinese and Japanese in response to the demands of the Pacific War; Geoffrey M. White and Jane Yi analyze how John Ford’s documentary December 7th (USA 1943) treats Japanese-Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor; and Martin Norden’s essay provides a new angle and many insights by considering disability issues, veterans, and racism in a variety of post-World War II films.
The final section of the anthology considers the operations of the studio system itself. By moving the focus away from the usual central concern with film texts themselves that animates most discussion of race in film, I found this section to be a particularly fruitful step forward. Brian O’Neill furthers the work Hershfield undertakes on del Rio by looking at the efforts within the studio system itself to police its representations of Latin America during World War II. Arthur Knight looks at how African Americans responded to Hollywood’s African-American stars. Sarah Madsen Hardy and Kelly Thomas’s innovative essay considers how the arrival of sound and the demand for the black voice creates crises in and transformations of Hollywood’s constructions of African Americans. And Peter Stansfield traces the different versions of the ballad of “Frankie and Johnnie” in and out of Hollywood and their relations to the complex politics and marketing of race.

Taken together, these two volumes make great contributions to the rapidly growing body of exciting work on race and cinema. They go far beyond the concerns with “representation” and “realism” that Rey Chow worries may bedevil this field. Indeed, each volume works from presumptions outside that paradigm, considering race as a “fiction” that interacts with a variety of historically, socially, and industrially specific determinations to construct understandings and judgments of people and events. Here, then, the issue is not adequacy to reality but what reality is understood to be on a more fundamental level.

As already indicated, both volumes share an unquestionably worthy and laudable desire to change that reality. However, here I must raise a caution. It seems that in both cases, the assumption is that exposing what has been often assumed to be a representation of reality itself as a construction will in some way change things. I am not so sure this is the case. I would humbly suggest that race and ethnicity are deeply rooted in the material history and politics of the creation of the United States as a postcolonial settler society. It is necessary to go beyond considering discourse and representation as an autonomous realm grounded in one or other industry and relate it to these larger dynamics. I am struck by the way in which almost all the works on ethnicity in American cinema, including those considered here, take “race” itself for granted as the starting point of their analyses. Much though I admire these two books, I hope that further work will also consider the production and maintenance of “race” as a taken-for-granted category of American discourse. This natural assumption needs to be interrogated in relation to the legitimation of the ownership of land, slaves, and other forms of capital motivating the origins of the American post-colony and the legacy of which continues to structure the distribution of wealth and power both within its supposedly egalitarian system and in the alleged benefits of its global aspirations.

Chris Berry
University of California, Berkeley.