PLAYING THE RACE CARD: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson

Linda Williams, Author . Princeton Univ. $32.50 (424p) ISBN 978-0-691-05800-9

It seems like a long leap "from Lillian Gish to... Leonardo DiCaprio and from Uncle Tom to Rodney King," but in this dazzling, benchmark work, noted cultural historian and critic Williams makes it with panache and enormous insight. Investigating contemporary racial strife embodied in the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson trials, Williams (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible) argues that centuries-old racial and sexual myths and representations are central to U.S. culture and politics. Exploring with acuity and empathy the many permutations of racial stereotypes (e.g., the black sexual predator and the white female victim in Birth of a Nation and elsewhere, and their social and political meanings over the past 150 years), Williams navigates a maze of American popular culture from Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jazz Singer and Show Boat to Roots and Bill T. Jones's Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin. Always provocative, Williams eschews simple explanations and easy liberal or conservative platitudes—as in her complicated analysis of the relationship between Jewish assimilation and blackface in The Jazz Singer and of the marketing for Gone with the Wind in Southern states (at age 10, Martin Luther King Jr. performed as a "slave" at a gala celebration of the film). Williams's astounding range of sources and attendant critical literature (she is professor of film studies at UC-Berkeley) is as impressive as her ability to synthesize and interpret so much information without undermining its emotional and artistic impact. This is a vital contribution to American studies as well as film and race studies. Photos and illus. (May)

Reviewed on: 04/23/2001
Release date: 04/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 424 pages - 978-0-691-10283-2
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