Surprised by Blackface: D.W. Griffith and One Exciting Night
By Linda Williams
From the Introduction: Blackface has been present in film from its inception, though until recently it was primarily addressed in film scholarship as an embarrassing stage archaism. Linda Williams has addressed this challenge in other work, notably Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson, in which she discusses the uses (and abuses) of the performance of race on page, stage, screen, and television. In her essay here, she revisits the work of D. W. Griffith, whose radical depiction of race (much of it through blackface) in Birth of a Nation has been persistently incendiary throughout the twentieth century and beyond. In “Surprised by Blackface: D. W. Griffith and One Exciting Night,” she examines a little-known late work that, though clearly created by a master craftsman, has been commonly dismissed as a throwback and a failure because of its treatment of blackface. In One Exciting Night, based on the stage hit The Bat, a work that includes no blackface component, Griffith adds two significant blackface plots. Williams asks why, and in her answer explores the possible uses of blackface as a formal narrative element of melodrama and farce. One Exciting Night becomes not an easily dismissed work that includes blackface performance through habit, but an intentional examination of race. The twinned blackface characters are an amalgam of attitudes from race melodrama and minstrel parody, over which are laid references to military service and heroism in the recent war, and the moral force of loyalty to family. The resulting imagery and tone are decidedly strange: characters are by turns noble and bestial, apparent sexual predators and comically fearful, endearing and disconcerting. By exploring a late Griffith work that did not, as Birth of a Nation did, gloss over its use of blackface with technical prowess, and that has not had that more famous film’s continuous cultural presence and critical baggage—in other words, it is a film that did not “age well”—Williams sets into relief the continued complexity of the tradition. Taken on its own, Griffith’s use of this form can be dismissed as merely inappropriate, a thoughtlessly imposed archaism. But in the context of the film as a whole, and the times in which it was made, blackface performance is never “simply” anything.
Linda Williams’ first book, Figures of Desire (1981), was a study of the cinematic Surrealist avant garde, Much of her research has since centered on popular American genres and modes of moving pictures, particularly those which make strong appeal to the bodies of viewers. In 1989 she published Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” a feminist study of hard-core pornography that refused to accept the received opinions of either anti-pornography or anti-censorship feminists. It has been widely translated and issued in a new edition 1999. In 2001 Williams published Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton). This book reconfigured the understanding of melodrama as a major mode rather than a contained genre—and traced the opposed versions of “good” and “evil” throughout a long American tradition of racial melodrama. Most recently, Screening Sex (Duke, 2008) addressed the basic paradox of moves: that we screen moving images to lose ourselves vicariously in the bigger, more glamorous, more vivid world of the screen but that this encounter with these moving images leads us back to encounter our own immediate sensuality. She is currently writing a book about The Wire.