From Racial Trauma to Melodrama: Representations of Race in Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, Hebert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Material Information

From Racial Trauma to Melodrama: Representations of Race in Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, Hebert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Roberts, Emmanuel
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
African Americans ( jstor )
Fear ( jstor )
Film criticism ( jstor )
Melodrama ( jstor )
Movies ( jstor )
Protagonists ( jstor )
Sympathy ( jstor )
Theater ( jstor )
Violence ( jstor )
Women ( jstor )
Biberman, H. J. (Herbert J.)
Fassbinder, Rainer Werner, 1945-1982
Melodrama in motion pictures
Micheaux, Oscar, 1884-1951
Undergraduate Honors Thesis


The origins of melodrama come from theater; therefore the genre has many negative associations with exaggeration and manipulation of emotions. Unfortunately, these associations developed an unwarranted reputation for melodrama. While early filmmakers in general showed interest in spectacle and entertainment, Oscar Micheaux, developed social critical melodramas that presented a political perspective on racial trauma. His anti-racist film Within Our Gates (1920) uses melodrama in response to other racist films, such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which relies on melodrama in order to develop a negative attitude against African Americans. Oscar Micheaux inverts the damaging perspective of Birth of a Nation by relying on an African American cast with a mixed race female protagonist. He creates sympathy towards African Americans by making them the innocent victims of the Caucasians violent regime. The same inversion occurs in Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth, in which the protagonists, Mexican-American miners, suffer at the hands of their Anglo employer, who refuses to grant them equality with White miners. Melodrama relies on exaggerated emotion; yet, the filmmaker can employ the genre to articulate trauma in a way that resonates with the viewers. The characters Ali (played by El Hedi ben Salem) and Emmi (played by Brigitte Mira) in Rainer Fassbinder’s film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) illustrate bi-racial coupling in a melodrama. Their role as a melodramatic bi-racial couple in the film helps illustrate racial contentions in the film. Even though Ali mixes several different genres and techniques it uses aspects of melodrama to present social criticism. Like other social melodramas, Ali reduces society’s racial contentions to the personal story of Ali. In social melodrama filmmakers represent a collective societal perspective and reduce it to an individual story. This helps make the story more accessible to audiences. In this example, melodrama enables a catharsis in order to appeal to an audience’s emotion without directly confronting the realities of racial trauma. ( en )
General Note:
Awarded Bachelor of Arts; Graduated August 12, 2014 summa cum laude. Major: English
General Note:
College/School: College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
General Note:
Advisor: Barbara Mennel

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University of Florida
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University of Florida
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Copyright Emmanuel Roberts. Permission granted to the University of Florida to digitize, archive and distribute this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.


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Within Our Gates Salt of the Earth and Rainer Werner Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Emmanuel Roberts Approved by: Advisor: Dr. Barbara Mennel Reader: Dr. Amy Ongiri


ABSTRACT Emmanuel Roberts: From Racial Trauma to Melodrama: Representations of Race in Oscar Within Our Gates Salt of the Earth Ali: Fear Eats the Soul The origins of melodrama come from theater; therefore the genre has many negative associations with exaggeration and manipulation of emotions. Unfortunately, these associations deve loped an unwarranted reputation for melodrama. While early filmmakers in general showed interest in spectacle and entertai nment, Oscar Micheaux, developed social critical melodramas that presented a political perspective on racial trauma. His anti racist film Within Our Gates (1920) uses melodrama in response to Birth of a Nation (1915) which relies on melodrama in order to develop a negative attitude against African Americans. Oscar Micheaux inverts the damag ing perspective of Birth of a Nation by relying on an African American cast with a mixed race female protagonist. He creates sympathy towards African Americans by making them the innocent victims of the Caucasians violent regime. The Salt of the Earth in which the protagonists, Mexican American miners, suffer at the hands of their Anglo employer who refuses to grant them equality with White miners. M elodrama relies on exaggerated emoti on; yet the filmmaker can employ the genre to articulate trauma in a way that resonates with the viewers. The character s Ali (played by El Hedi ben Salem) and Emmi (played by Bri gi tte Mira) in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) illustrate bi racial coupling i n a melodram a. Their role as a melodramatic bi racial couple in the film helps illustrate racial contentions in the film. Even though Ali mixes several different genres and techniques it uses aspects of melodrama to present social criticism. Like other social melodramas, Ali reduces In s ocial melodrama filmmakers represent a collective societal perspective and reduce it to an individu al story. This helps make the story more accessible to audiences. In this example, melodrama enables a catharsis in order to appeal to an audience s emotion w ithout directly confronting the realities of racial trauma.


TABLE OF CONTENTS Chapter 1 Chapter 2: The Racism and Melodrama of Within Our Gates ...6 Chapter 3: The Suppression of Mexican American s in Salt of the Earth Chapter 4: The Homage of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul .21 Chapter 5: C ..27 Work Cit


1 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION Melodrama ha s existed since early cinema, with many filmmakers, such as Oscar Micheaux and D. W. Griffith producing socially consci ous melodramatic films. John Mercer writes in his book Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility that film scholars started to pay serious attention to melodrama in the 1970s ( 4). Though the genre certainly existed before the 1970s, scholarly writing about melodrama did not emerge until later because melodrama proves to be a difficult genre Melodrama consists of a dramatic storyline, exaggerated emotions, an ind ividual story that illustrates a socially relevant issue, a female protagonist, mise en scene, camera work, and music that punctuates emotional moments. Sinc e melodrama originates from early cinema, characteristics of melodrama emerged in other genres suc h as film noir, romantic dramas, and even thrillers. Writers used the phrase melodrama before the 1970s but its significance and identification in film did not appear until the 1970s and early 1980s. Therefore, filmmakers such as Herbert Biberman, Oscar Micheaux and Rainer Werner Fassbinder found importance in a genre that incorporated action, narrative, and exaggerated emotion in order to represent racial contentions The basic model of melodra ma tha t originates from theater tends to featu re a protagonist for strong audience identification ; Fassbinder Micheaux, and Biberman use this aspect of melodrama in their films T heir protagonists reflect an audience s worries and concerns about a socially critical situation. Mercer addresses this (or, indeed, induced) to sublimate their own fears and anxieties onto the central figure, who is, in most cases, also the victim of the drama manipulative aspect of melodrama through the protagonist. Therefore the fact that the


2 protagonists in Ali Salt of the Earth, and Within Our Gates are racial minorities and victims of drama help s persuade the audience to feel sympathy for them. This perspective challenges the dominating societal assumpti ons about race and equality in a marriage (as in Ali ), within society (as seen in Ali and Within Our Gates ), and in employment (as seen in Salt of the Earth ). As stated by Mercer the protagoni sts play a cruci al role in melodrama since they feature characteristics that draw the audience to them. Biberman, Fassbinder, and Micheaux recognize this and use this aspect of melodrama to present a rarely explored perspec tive which places racia l minorities in the role of victimized protagonists. Melodrama sensationalize s social contentions and place s emphasis on the physical portrayal of trauma or oppression in order to enhance the emotional impact. Filmmakers who make melodramas use aesth etics and the mise en scene in order to punctuate emotional po ints in the narrative. The most generic definition of melodrama, a dramatic narrative with mu sical accompaniment to mark the emotional effects, places emphasis on the aesthetic importance of mu sic ( Mercer 7). Filmmakers from the silent era, such as Oscar Micheaux expressed emotional tension through musical accompaniment since synchronized dialogue did not exist. The use of music to punctuate emotion continues through the sound era and often s ensationalizes climatic moments in dramatic films The climax of Salt of the Earth uses exaggeration through aesthetics in order to sensationalize the Mexican music at the climax of Salt of the Earth mimic emphasis on drums and triumphant brass sounds. This particular musical accompaniment emerges in several scenes of the film and adds a militaristic quality to the film that dramatizes many of the action scenes. In Salt of the Earth this creates a spectacle while also dramatically portraying r acial conten tions Herbert Biberman uses music in Salt of the Earth to highl ight


3 significant moments While Fassbinder uses Bretchian and melodramatic tec hniques in Ali his use of mise en scene pays homage to early melodrama s through the use of bold colors in order to create a particular mood or tone. Unlike Ali and Salt of the Earth, Within Our Gates strict ly adheres to the conventions of melodrama In c hapter two I use Within Our Gates as an example to show how the elements of melodrama in cinema help articulate race related historical trauma. The debate of using melodrama in historical fiction began with the representation of the black body in the ater and early cinema which Saidiya Hartman addresses in her book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self Making in the Nineteenth Century America She bases her argument on the portrayal of the black body in melodramatic works, such as Harriet B Uncle responses from audiences such as desire, fear, revulsion, terror, and pleasure (26). All these differ ent emotional responses help explain the representations of blacks in early cinema. Micheaux fills Within Our Gates with a range of black characters, some of which audiences can admire and some of which they can despise. Though melodramatic works typically feature an ensemble of characters, th e protagonists share several of the same characteristics. In many instances the traumas the protagonists experience throughout the works overshadow their initial good intentions. The protagonist in Within Our Gates Sylvia Landry played by Evelyn Preer, decides to try to raise money for a school in need but encounters a jealous cousin, a early melodrama is based on the body being used as an object of violence. Micheaux uses violence against the protagonist Sylvia in a way that draw s sympathy towards the character, but Hartman argues that portraying the black body as susceptible to violence creates an association


4 of blackness with vulnerability ( 24 ). T he sympa thy developed towards Sylvia lends itself to melodrama. Micheaux uses melodrama and creates sympathy towards Sylvia through violent acts that help illustrate racial trauma. The discussion of Salt of the Earth in chapter three argues that Herbert Biberman uses conventions of melodrama to portray the racial contentions between the Anglos and Mexican Americans. Salt of the Earth not only functions as a melodrama, but crosses different styles, such as feminist, political, and neo realism filmmaking. The film faced suppression as did Within Our Gates which James J. Lorence addresses in his book, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth He blames much of the suppression bor Unions and Labor Wars, many of which occurred in the 1940s, a mere decade before the release of Salt of the Earth (113). Yet, even while mixing several different styles of filmmaking, Biberman still chooses to tell the story of the struggle of the Mex ican American miners through the perspective of a fictiona l family. The mother Esperanza ( played by Rosaura Revueltas ) voices the story through a dramatic narration. Biberman reduces the story of the Mexican American miners to that of a family unit, simi lar to how melodrama takes societal criticisms and reduces them to a personal narrative. Darlene J. Latin American melodrama ( 2 3 ) This certainly bears similarity to the portrayal of Esperanza in Salt of the Earth Sadlier describes the female protagonist in the film Aventurera (1950) as a The role of the active women certain ly plays a key role in Salt of the Earth and not only references melodrama but also early feminist filmmaking.


5 argument in her article Fassbinder and Spectatorship published in New German Critique serves as the basis for my argument in chapter four. She addresses melodrama used in Ali melodramas, such as Imitation of Life (1959), portray racial conflict through personal stor ies. Ali serves to embody racial conflict in contemporary West German society. body as in Within Our Gates He places emphasis on t he gaze of others as they look upon the Moroccan immigrant worker Ali and his much elder German wife, Emmi, played by Brigi tte Mira. Mayne indentifies the struggle to define melodrama, but also mentions the belief that melodramas emphasize intense emotion (66). Fassbinder does this with mise en scene and emotional bursts from his characters, in particular Emmi, who becomes the emotional center of the film. Ali demonstrates a contemporary representation of the black body as an attractive and desired man. Instead of being flogged or lynched like in classical race melodrama, Fassbinder objectifies the black body. In a scene in the middle of the film Ali Emmi invites her friends to her house. They inquire about her much younger husband Ali. She indulges their interest by calling Ali and forcing him to flex and pose for her friends. She presents her husband Ali to her friends like an object and only emphasiz es his ph ysical features to her friends. Ali stands there like a slave being sold at an auction. This scene builds sympathy towards Ali like scenes of violence in melodrama, while also emphasizing the implications of Emmi racist action s. Fassbinder uses scenes that serve as homage to early melodramas while also articulating contemporary German Fassbinder, Biberman, and Micheaux use melodrama as a vehicle in order to articulate racial conflicts in Ali Sa lt of the Earth and Within Our Gates in a way that resonates with audiences.


6 CHAPTER 2 THE RACISM AND MELODRAMA OF WITHIN OUR GATES This chapter illustrates that a cohesive reading of Within Our Gates emerges when it is viewed in the context of melodrama. I use Within Our Gates as an example to show how Within in Our Gates forms melodramatic triangles of characters while telling a story of racial viole nce and slavery. Within Our Gates cross es several genres ( such as crime noir, and romance) the film has strong ties to melodrama in early cinema such as the female protagonist, the use of coincidence, the happy ending, and the us e of exaggerated emotion. The race films of the silent era used melodrama to represent historical trauma in a form that resonated with audiences. several recurring el ements in melodrama that lend themselves to articulating the racial trauma in Within Our Gates Gaines mentions narrative coincidence in melodrama in relationship to In her essay she uses a quote from Within Our Gates by s her true identity as his daughter. The use of coincidence in this scene complicates the rape of black woman, or the violation of the black body, by incorporating the i ssue of incest. This makes Armand attempted rape of Sylva more despicable. The use of lps express the trauma of interracial rape in Within Our Gates.


7 Many of the basic elements of theatrical melodrama (a female protagonist, exaggeration, intense emotion, an identifiable villain, a nd coincidence) transitioned into film, particular ly into the race melodramas of the silent era. Though social melodrama started as a theatrical form in which a heroine, a noble man, and a villain intertwine d in a chaotic triangle, the form adapted to new cultural and social demands over time (Cawelti, 35). Filmmakers used the triangle that exists in melodrama to choose a black man as the opposing villain to the white heroine. Micheaux inverted this and chose African Americans as the protagonists in his films. He also chose African American actors to play the characters in his film, many of which mimicked the stereotypes of either social standards or characters from earlier melodramas such as the uneducated and conniving African Ameri can male. He cho se to use stereotypical melodramatic characters and situations in his film not only to enforce the stereotypes but also to challenge them in a innovative way by making films that directly respond to other race films of the silent era, The Birth of a Nation released in 1913. Micheaux used melodrama to create a film that challenges the social standard of race according to which African American s were viewed as brutes and uneducated. He used imagery and established plot elements in order to create a work that evoked sympathy for a partially African American heroine as well as the African American race. The film would remain one of t he highlights of his career It is hard to determine whether Micheaux challenges African American stereotypes or enforces them, an versy about the time of release concerning the use of melodrama and the graphic port rayal of violence on screen. Though the association of violence and the black body still exists, Micheaux complicates it by developing Sylvia as a typical sympathetic character of melodrama. The violation of the


8 black body in cinema stuns audiences not only because of the horrific nature of the acts but also because of the painful resu worst memories. Jane Gaines addresses this in her article Fire and Desire: Race, Melodrama, and Oscar Micheaux She s struggle to get Within Our Gates approved for release and his re editing of the lynching scene (50). In the article she writes The Birth of a Nation (centered upon a notion of falsehood in representation), the Wi thin Our Gates Gaines does not mention the graphicness of the lynching scene, but writes about a of racial violence, a truth that now resurfaces painful memories for contemporary audiences. According to Gaines article viewers were initially stunned by the images of Within Our Gates but the sympathy that melodrama creates towards characters helped frame the trauma that resulted from violence against the black body. Hartman suggests that melodrama provided a frame for early filmmakers and authors that wished to portray the horrors of slavery (27). The climax of Within Our Gates portrays the violence against the black body which Hartman emphasizes in her book in two separate incidents while using cross cutting to articulate trauma. Micheaux use s cross cutting in order to capture climatic scenes of violence to evoke panic. This occurs at the emotional climax of the film in order to add urgency and dramatic ef fect to the scene. Micheaux uses this technique in order to capture the attempted rape of Sylvia and the wrongful murder of her family. He captures many emotions in the scene such as terror, sadness, and hope through cross cutting. The attempted rape sc ene begins with the intertitle e the unaware father of the protagonist enters th e scene from the right of the frame. His back faces the viewer as he sneaks h obvious malicious intent. The film cuts to a medium


9 cuts to a medium shot inside of the home. Sylvia stands in the center of the mise en scene furiously packing conten ts into a bag. Another cut follows but the film does not go back to the execution site but back to the antagonist sneaking into the house. The camera cuts to a medium close up The film rapidly cuts again to capture the antagonist as he stands in the doorway but then cuts back to Sylvia. Her wide eyes show fear and panic. This cycle of shot/reverse shot between the antagonist and Sylvia repeats twice in order to create an oppo sition between Sylvia and Armand. It also establishes Armand as a physical threat to Sylvia by capturing his imposing frame as he approaches her. The cross cutting continues with a medium shot of Sylvia as she moves backwards towards the wall while Arman d slowly ent ers the frame from the left followed by a close up of hands that cut a rope from a wooden beam. The scene cuts back to Armand and Sylvia. They stand uncomfortably close now and Armand suddenly lunges violently at Sylvia. When the violence in the scene begins, the cuts between the execution scenes and the attempted rape scene become more rapid. The camera captures the blood thirsty crowd that executes ross cut in order to better express the trauma by adding panic and creating an emotionally charged scene that resonates with the viewer. Micheaux uses cross cutting in order to blend several emotions into one climatic scene. Cross cutting lends itself to articulating historical trauma because it presents two instances of violence against the black body that c onvey similar emotional responses. Melodrama works as a form o f resistance. Black filmmakers, such as Micheaux used the form in order to represen t a counter view of racial trauma. Micheaux made Within Our Gates as


10 Birth of a Nation He uses the r acial trauma by using cinema as a tool of resistance to shape black identity in society. The film portrays the black body in a state of pain in the context of melodrama as a political strategy to convince audiences into feeling sympathy towards the oppressed black body. African Americans and the Culture of Pa in focuses on different media (film, television, novel, newspaper, and radio) and how they use the black body in a state of pain as a political strategy and rhetorical device. She argues that pain and the black body find their way into American culture an d are used by society as resistance agains t racism Within Our Gates as a physical gesture against acts of racism. The use of violence to counter other acts of violence s eems contradictory, but within melodrama the use of it seems relevant, since sympathy develops towards the victimized Artists use melodrama as a form to convince viewers into feeling sympathy for the protagonist, who in Within Our Gates is part African American. Similarly, Broken Blossoms, released in 1919, draws sympathy towards the central female character Lucy Borrows, played by Lillian Gish, through the oppression and violence she faces at the hands of her father. L audience into feeling sympathy towards both through violent acts and emotional trauma. Since filmmakers use the emotion al power of melodrama to convince viewers, incorporati ng elements of melodrama to draw sympathy or understanding towards racial trauma gives films such as Within Our Gates an emotional depth, which is politically motivated.


11 mentions denial in her book as a coping mechanism used by society in order to deal with racial trauma (27). pain carries within it meanings that, even when absolutely horrible, are accepted, categorized, and forgotten of the visual representation of the black body surface. Melodramatic historic al fiction films attempt to provide closure to historical events where closure does not exist. The film Within Our Gates ends with the marriage of Sylvia to a doctor. Through all her trials Sylvia still ends up marrying an admirable man a nd the film conc ludes with a happy ending The satisfactory ending certainly does not accurately reflect the ongoing traumatic effects of racism in American society but instead provides closure. The audience must recognize that outside the cinematic representations of h istorical tr auma, the effects of the trauma may still exist in contemporary society. Melodramatic historical fiction films separate audiences from reality because of their exaggeration and fiction alization of actual events; therefore, this can lead to ove rlooking the criticisms that emerge when representing the black body in cinema. Associations with melodrama can discredit historical representations of racial violence; yet, undeniably elements of melodrama articulate racial trauma. ching violence in cinema complicates the depictions of violence in Within Our Gates She quotes a University of Florida graduate student that r ead a story about lynching. I found myself having a strange feeling of an almost inability to turn away I would total disbelief that this could happen. But [the] point is that that [in it self] is some kind of


12 pleasure, and I find that to be really thought provoking, as well as disturbing, realization (27). This quote applies directly to cinematic representations and demonstrates the role that disbelief can play in melodramatic representati address racial violence it also applies to other depiction s of historical violence The film Wit hin Our Gates uses melodrama in order to represent hist orical trauma and formulate an individual story. The manner in which the film uses melodrama makes i t unconventional Micheaux uses it to recreate the terrors of racism in America. Hartman and King address the depiction of violence against the black body but only Hartman i dentifies how melodrama as a genre lends itself to articulating historical trauma. In the midst of all the violence and terror in the film, Micheaux offers a powerful response to a tragic h istorical event Gaines refers to the release of Within Our Gates appropriate metaphor that illustrates the racial conflicts in America release. Ironically, black and whi te churches united in the claim that the scenes in the film, in particular the lynching scene, violated a moral standard of violence in cinema. In addition many focused their attention to actual lynchings being written about in the newspapers. Micheaux cer tainly choose to make Within Our Gates at a time when the fears and events in his film reflect ed actual current actions. Gaines writes that the film reminded audiences of recent acts of violence against African Americans which caused apprehension about th e film. She begins with the struggle of censorship before the release of Within Our Gates and then continues into the re editing until Birth of a Nation with that of Within Our Gates. The treatment of both films during the times of their releases reflects


13 A mericans at the time. Yet, she does not mention the differences in the casting of The Birth of a Nation and Within Our Gates As mentioned previously, Within Our Gates features a cast of African standards films that feature a full African American cast rate lower among consumers (even with c entered The Birth of a Nation () She, however, does not mention the additional controversy of the since at the time the i ndustry was dominated by w hites and Within Our Gates was made primarily by African Americans. The association of melodrama with violence originates from the theater. Dramatists put the heroine in bleak and violent situations which often end happily. The climaxes of melodramas usually feature the most v iolent scenes. In Within Our Gates Micheaux startle s the viewer with violent past. These scenes probably impacted audiences of the silent era more since lyn ching and violence against African Americans still existed. Showing the black body in moving images of violence caused organizations and church groups to attempt to ban the release of the film with fears that the repercussions of these scenes would negativ ely impact the African American community. The sensationalism of the violence comes from melodrama. The melodramatic plot elements that build up to the violent climax of Within Our Gates create an emotional contract with the characters that make their viol ent deaths even more devastating and inhumane. Though controversial and melodramatic, the historical significance of Within Our Gates and its importance as a milestone in African American filmmaking continue to make it the most analyzed Oscar Micheaux fil m. The struggle of the film serves as a testimony to the violent


14 melodramatic plot elements as a tool to create an honest portrayal of the African American communi ty i n which he not only blames the w hites but fellow African Americans who use others for personal gain.


15 CHAPTER 3 THE SUPPRES S ION OF MEXICAN AMERICANS IN SALT OF THE EARTH Film historians do not define Salt of the Earth as a melodrama, but as a political drama and a feminist film. Though Salt of the Earth place s heavy emphasis on the role of the active woman and labor equality, moments of melodrama in the film help depict racial contentions The film not only functions as a politically charged drama but as a melodrama told through the perspective of a fictional Mexican American family. Though the film feature s an ensemble cast, the effect s of the racially motivated strike are depicted through one family with Esperanza, the moth er, providing a narration. Biberman casted Mexican Americ an actors in the lead roles, as Micheaux casted African American actors in Within Our Gates Since Mexican Americans make up a large percentage of the cast and Esperanza, a Mexican American mother, tells the story, the audience i dentifies with a n ethnic and working class minority. Melod rama addresses social criticism while telling a personal st ory which adds appeal and accessibility for audience member s and helps them i dentify with the protagonists. In a film such as Salt of the Earth about labor equality, audience member American protagonists enhances the fi can advance a political message in a convincing a nd heartfelt way Herbert Biberman realizes this and uses music, family, exaggeration, sensationalism and even comedy closely associated with melodrama to create a sto ry of equality. As stated before, music has been a key feature of me lodrama since its origins. The definition of melodrama emphasizes music and its role in depicting drama. Salt of the Earth features a soundtrack that almost overwhelms many of the scenes depicting the Mexican Americans decide to


16 strike against the Anglo employers for equality, the men form a picket line. Eventually, their empl oyer contacts the authorities, who forbid the men to picket This causes the Mexican American women to take charge of the picket line. After they take over, they encounter in which the henc hmen attack the picketing women with tear gas features music that punctuates the dramatic moments. The first shot of the scene, a medium shot of four masked men with guns approaching, creates a horrifying ima ge. The filmmaker accompanies the shot with l ow, syncopated string music, which enhances the ferocity of the impending attack. The film cuts to an overhead shot of the women picketing and then back to a tight medium shot of the four masked men as they shoot their tear gas guns. Meanwhile, the music continues in the background with more syncopated string music. The film cuts to a medium shot of the women as the tear gas rises and then to a medium shot of Esperanza running away from the gas with a baby in her arms. The music intensifies as Esperanza makes her escape and even more so when the film cuts to a wider shot showing the spreading tear gas. The string music reaches a higher octave as the film cuts between medium and long shots of the women attempting to rally and continue marching amidst the gas. Throughout the scene Esperanza delivers a narration describing all of the action, but es to a triumphant conclusion. The transition from ominous string music to triumphant brass outlin es the actions of the entire scene and punctuates the dramatic moments, such as Esperanza fleeing with the baby and as is the function of music in melodrama. It enhances the horror of the four masked men and the drama of Esperanza r unning away with the baby. Biberman use s the same technique at the climax at the end of the film, where the Mexican Americans fight the invadin g Anglos. A lot of


17 or a call to arms. The motivating drums and marching tunes makes the movie about the fight for equality a revolutionary film Family melodr ama dominated many of the melodramas of the 1950s, including Nicholas Rebel Without a Cause East of Eden (1955), both of which enjoyed great success. Mercer mentions in his book Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility that quently, in family melodrama, the emphasis is on the direct portrayal of the psychological situation, which the audience is likely to share and understand from their own experience of Salt of the Earth Esperanza narrates the entire film, placing emphasis on the effect that the strike has on her family as well as the unsanitary and harsh conditions in which she has to raise her family. The psychological situation that occurs in Salt of the Earth happens when the women must switch with the men to continue the strike. The men must tend to the household chores while the women picket. When the men do the housework they realize how strenuous the activities are in the conditions that they live in. The direct portrayal of the psychological and physical switch of the men and women reflects the evolution of the family unit at the time. This psychological situation of the women who are now taking a leading role in st implications as well as its tendency towards melodrama. The scene in which Ramon hangs the laundry physically and melodramatically portrays the psychological situation. The whimsical music, the dramatic lo w angle showing Ramon repeatedly wiping his brow, and the comical bickering between Ramon and his neighbor amplifies the scene and uses exaggeration as comedy and as a way to depict the hardship


18 Sensationalis m, exaggeration, and excessi veness exist in melodrama and often amplify the films emotional as well as heroic scenes. Though Salt of the Earth maintains a realistic tone throughout the film, the climax, when the Mexican Americans fight back, uses extreme angles, cross cutting, and t riumphant music that sensationalizes their physical confrontation with the Anglos. The opening shot of the scene begins with the close up of Esperanza as she looks at the invading Anglos. The film then cuts to a medium shot of Ramon driving to meet his wife. A fter the medium shot of Ramon the film dissolve s to a medium shot of a truck filled with Mexican Americans, which stops and picks up people. Another dissolve follows showing a Mexican American woman waving her hand to an approaching car. T he car stops and lets several female passengers climb in. The dissolves continue and show the Mexican Americans rallying together while ominous, syncopated string and brass music plays in the background. Ramon finally arrives at the scene. The static camera c aptures Ramon in a medium shot as he exits the car with a rifle in hand. The camera cuts to a medium shot of a crowd of Mexican American women behind a fence. The camera cuts back to Ramon as he raises his riffle and walks out of frame. The scene uses ra pid cutting and many of the shots capture the Mexican Americans in action with extreme angles Even the children throw stones at the Anglos. The music begins as the same ominous, syncopated string music from before and transitions into a triumphant march with heroic sounding woodwind instruments once the Mexican Americans fight back. The rapid cutting and the extreme angles sensationalize the scene as well as emphasize the heroic actions of the Mexican Americans, who rally together to protect a family from eviction This final confrontation also features a series of cross cuts between the Mexican Americans and the Anglos. The music completely fades out at this point as the camera cuts from the crowd of Mexican Americans to the invading Anglos who have come to evict a family. The series of


19 cross cuts exaggerates the confrontation between them and the absence of the soundtrack creates an excessive tone that depicts the racially motivated confrontation. In this scene the use of sensationalism lends itsel f to melodrama It helps depict a racial confrontation out of which the minority race emerges successful ly The exaggeration of the Mexican triumph emphasizes the importance of racial equality in the film and makes their success more heroic. The filmmaker emphasizes the line between good and evil t hrough the series of cross cuts. Therefore, the climax of Salt of the Earth incorporates these elements of melodrama in order to depict a racial confrontation and exaggerates the Mexican show the importance of equality in a way that reverberates with the audience. The characters in Salt of the Earth share many characteristics with archetypes of melodrama but challenge them by reversing gender roles halfway through the film. Though the primary social concern in the film deals with racial equality, gender equality and working class conflict emerge halfway through the film when the men can no longer strike in the picket line and the women must take over. In melodrama, the protagonist must go through hardship which climaxes at a pinnacle emotional point in the film. The female protagonist in S alt of the Earth Esperanza, does indeed encounter hardships not only as a Mexican but also as a working class woman Though she does not face physical abuse from anyone, she does endure emotional abuse from her husband who does not support her decision to take over the picket line with the other choice to have a female in the central role originates from melodrama. The female heroine evolved from melodrama and has not only served as a figure of sympathy but also as a figure of emot ional sentimentalism in cinema. Esperanza certainly shadows many of the heroines before her and remains the emotional center of the film, but her actions challenge the typical portrayal. The circumstances Esperanza faces in Salt of the Earth place her in a position,


20 in which and strikes with the other women when the men cannot. This task bears similarities to Sylvia Within Our Gates Bo th women encounter danger but overcome their tragic circumstance s role as the female heroine and emotional center of the film make her a recognizable and relatable figure of melodrama that hel ps express the social concerns of gender, race and working class equality that the filmmakers wish to address. The basic plot components of Salt of the Earth include the essential elements of melodrama. Though so me of the plot structures in Salt of the Earth clearly mimic melodrama ot hers remain more ambiguous. Biberman plainly identifies the Mexican American miners as the heroes of the film with Esperanza as the central heroine and narrator. The oppression that t he heroes face comes from an external source, their bosses, who refuse to provide the Mexican American miners with equal treatment in comparison to the Anglo miners. This representation of clearly defined good and evil forces mimics melodramatics represent ations. The plot of Salt of the Earth develops into a classic ba ttle of good and evil, in which the Mexican American miners fight against their bosses and local authority with the intent of achieving equality. These basic plot structures that filmmakers us e help represent social issues in a manner that makes them more accessible. This brings greater awareness to pertinent social concerns and also creates an emotional resonance with the audience.


21 CHAPTER 4 THE HOMAGE OF ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL Ali: Fear Eats the Soul c ombines racial contentions, Bre chtian techniques, and melodrama in a way that pays homage to the melodramas from the Hollywood golden age. Ali tells the story of a romance between a young Moroc can immigrant worker, Ali, and a much older Ge rman working class woman, Emmi. This unlikely romance leads to societal discrimination and isolation for Ali and most importantly Emmi, who has much more to lose in regard to her family, friends, and job The unconventional romance between Ali and Emmi pays homage to the unconventional couples of melodrama, which are divided by class, race, or another obstacle. Fassbinder uniquely portrays racial attitudes by focusing on the constraints o f o thers through melodrama and Bre c htian techniques. He uses melodrama not only as homage but as a form to depict the racial contentions in the film similar to Herbert Biberman and Oscar Micheaux. The relationship between Ali and Emmi develops through the perspective and actions of outsiders. Mayne addresses this in The relationship between Emmi and Ali that we see is constantly defined by the constraints imposed by others. They dance together at the request of someone else and her of taking in a lodger. (62) Mayne mentions the constant intrus ion from outsiders, which shapes relationship. The racial contentions in the film also develop from the intrusions of outsiders. Fassbinder depicts many scenes of people either starring or talking about Ali and Emmi. The outsiders narrate the story like a Greek chorus in classic tragedy. They define the parameters of the relationship and add constrai nts. This climaxes at the restaurant scene halfway through the


22 film. Fassbinder uses intense melodramatic emotion and Brechtian techniques of posing and isolation in order to portray the racial criticisms of society physically Once Ali and Emmi fall in love, marry, and move in together they are rejected by everyone around them. Emmi tries to pretend that it does not bother her while she sits alone during her lunch break s at work and faces criticism from her family. Everything climaxes when Al i and Emmi decide to go out to eat at an empty restaurant, where they are face d with scrutiny from the restaurant staff. This scene combines Brechtian techniques (isolation, posing, and theatricality) as well as melodrama (mise en scene and intense emotio n) to illustrate racial conflict visually The scene is but one example of Fassbinder using melodrama as a vehicle in order to portray racial contentions. Fassbinder uses a long shot as the establishing shot of the restaurant scene, which places em phasis on his aesthetic choice of opening with a long shot in order to create a visual ima ge of isolation. The filmmaker initially present s the opening shot as a Brechtian representation of alienation, in which a typical everyday action of eating at a res taurant becomes an illustration of a social criticism. T he mise en scene in the opening shot of the restaurant pays homage to early melo drama in which a filmmaker use s the mise en scene to add dramatic effect. In the opening shot of the scene Ali and Em mi sit outside in the middle of a crowd of empty tables and chairs. We see Ali and Emmi holding hands from a distance; but they appear alienated and isolated by the vast amount of empty tables and chairs around them. The leaves on the trees appear damp f rom rain and though daytime, the sun does not shine. The damp setting, the long, exposing shot and the mise en scene in the opening shot visually creates the alienation, isolation, and loneliness felt by Emmi in the entire scene.


23 The public reception of the relationship between Ali and Emmi gets a haunting visual representation in the empty faces of the wait staff at the restaurant. Fassbinder uses this shot of the wait staff to emphasize the cynical criticism of society towards an interracial and age d efiant couple. He builds up to this shot with a close up of Ali, who turns around and looks at the wait staff staring at them and then follows with a close up of the damp and haggard Emmi who calls heatricality to the scene. The seven characters in the shot pose and stand symmetrical in a lined formation as if on stage. Their facial expressions do not reflect individual emotion but a collective emotion about Ali and Emmi, which pays homage to Brech tian acting style. In this approach society, represented by the wait staff, functions as the Greek chorus, letting the audience know the scandalous and arbitrary status of such a relationship at the time. Unlike the Greek chorus, they do so without words and instead pose as if on stage. Their silence makes the shot more dynamic and exaggerates their disapproval through their staged and anti realistic performances. They stare as if looking at an attraction at a circus and their eyes place an unwanted cag e around Ali and Emmi. Their look of degradation serves as a reflection of themselves. This shot visual ly rep resents the negative public eye, in which unfortunately Ali a nd Emmi encounter racism Fassbinder uses the zoom in as the next crucial aest hetic in the scene in order to amplify she slowly bows her head and begins to cry. Fassbinder accentuates this first depiction of emotion in the scene by not z ooming in on Emmi, but surprisingly, on Ali. This marks the first camera movement in the scene and the first shot transition without a cut. Now in close facial expression does not change but remains the same. Traditionally, the camera would zo om in on the character in an emotional state and then cut to the reaction of the spectator, but instead


24 plagues his wife, Emmi. T he dialogue when Ali asks Emmi why she cries als o reflects this The state, it focuses on the obliviousness of Ali. While the first few shots of the scene follow a more theatrical and Brechtian logic the last shots of the scene follow the traditional logic of drama and melodrama. Emmi confesses her concern to Ali in an over the shoulder shot immediately following the zoom in. The camera ack of his head. She appears dwarfed on the left side of the frame as she confides in Ali. The clarity of the focus on Emmi draws attention to dried appearanc state much like how the mise en scene punctuates emotion in melodrama. Her dwarfed appearance in the shot reflects her belittled societal reception which she confesses to Ali as the reason for her sorrow. After her confession the camera cuts to an over the shoulder shot of Ali, show the films reliance on conventionality in order to portr ay an unconventional circumstance of alienation. melodra matic tone. After the over the shoulder shots the camera cuts to a wider shot of Ali and Emmi. She shouts to the spectators and proclaims Ali as her husband; nevertheless, she begins to cry and buries her face in her arm. This triggers the camera to zoom in on her. Inst ead of zooming in on Ali as before the camera now zooms in on Emmi, who experiences an emotional


25 break. Ali places his hand on her head for comfort. As in melodramatic films, the zoom unconventional romance to a melodramatic climax. Melodrama makes Emmi succumb to the pathetic role of the weeping wife instead of sustaining the emotional strength she had at the beginning of the film, which Fassbinder captures wi th a close up. After the zoom in the camera cuts to a profile close up of Ali, who comforts up of Emmi, weeping pathetically unto the hands of her husband. The close up of Emmi crying s tresses the relationship between the sorrowful woman and melodrama. The final shot of the scene begins as an over the shoulder shot of Emmi, but then concludes with a camera pullback that reinstates the emotional stability of the scene. Once Emmi decides that a vacation from everyone will make amends her mood changes to one of hope that once they return everyone will inevitably accept their relationship. Melodrama thrives on hope and without hope nothing ends happy. Once Emmi stabilizes, the scene conclu des with a slow camera pullback and fade out typical of Hollywood dramas. Instead of resorting to a representation of violence against the oppressed body as do Biberman and Micheaux, Fassbinder uniquely addresses the depiction of the oppressed body through objectification. Race melodramas such as Within Our Gates and Imitation of Life (1959 ) feature a violent attack against the black body that draws sympathy towards the victim. In Imitation of Life yfriend assaults her after he finds out about her African American heritage. Fassbinder reverts from violence and instead uses objectification to illustrate racial contentions. The role of Ali in the film shares similarities to women in melodrama. Inste ad of Emmi being the desirable female,


26 film. desires and they become a couple, their relationship evolves into an unconventional variation of melodrama. They face alienation and public discrimination from the ir surroundings. Therefore society rejects them, which Emmi does not handle well. Society eventually accepts her again and she indulges her friends by showing off Ali like an object. Emmi succumbs to societal pressure in order to gain favor s from her friends by objectifying her s the racial differentiated other s action. This scenes functions like the racia l l y motivated assaults in melodrama in that it degrades Ali and strips him of his humanity. Fassbinder clearly realizes this, and instead of r esorting to acts of violence he degrades Ali by objectifying him. In Ali the relationship between melodrama, Brechtian techniques, and racial contentions provide a unique depiction of racism in contemporary German society. Melodrama appears in Ali but Fassbinder provides a different variation on the form by making Ali the desirable figure in the film. He does not rely on action and violence to degrade the black body but on objectification which produces the same effect and draws sympathy towards Ali. Fassbinder uses melodrama as homage by inverting the form and creating a film that addresses racial contentions through the unconventional love story of Ali and Emmi.


27 CHAPTER 5 CONCLUSION The films Within Our Gates, Salt of the Earth, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul use elements of melodrama in order to represent racial contentions and formulate their own individual stories. The manner in which the films use melodramatic elements make s them unconventional in their time and in relation to genre con ventions Micheaux uses melodrama to recreate terrors of racism in America. His use of graphic violence in contrast to Biberman and Fassbinder films, startles and re Within Our Gates crosses several genres, the film has stronger ties to melodrama in early cinema. In the midst of the violence and terror in the film, Micheaux offers a powerful response to a tragic historical event that still emerges in contemporary American society. Ad am Lowenstein writes in his book Shocking Representations: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film the execution of Salt of the Earth fictionalizes an actual event, the 1951 strike ag ainst the Empire Zinc Company. Herbert Biberman tells the story of traumatic historical event and therefore recognizes the event as a wound which he attempts to heal through melodrama. The happy ending of melodrama attempts to heal the wounds that Lowenstein addresses by providing closure T hese moments of happiness and triumph cathartically provide hope from tragedy. Salt of the Earth functions as a declaration of hope in a time of suppression when Hollywood, big labor, and politicians blacklisted it (Lorence, 1). James Lorance writes about the legacy of the film :


28 Salt of the Earth, stands as a revealing celluloid document, a record that chronicles a determined effort by socially committed men and women to question the accepted gender and racial relations of their time and to build better lives for themselves and their families throu gh the medium of socially conscious unionism (1 2). Melodrama chronicles societal contentions through a personal story, which Biberman does in Salt of the Earth He challenges societal standards of gender and race through the personal struggles of Espera nza. His reliance on the personal story makes melodrama a relevant and ideal form to depict or challenge racial contentions. He uses film and melodrama to question the role of the woman not only in the family but in society. Labor equality issues still emerges in contemporary America and Salt of the Earth serves as a testament to their origins. use of Brechtian and melodramatic motifs. Ali offers the ultimate variation of melodramatic l ove by using established motifs to further alienate the unconventional couple. The social surroundings of Ali and Emmi work as a collective force that seek s to alienate them Thus the society as a collective force pays homage to Brechtian techniques whe reas the socially unconventional love story pays homage to melodrama. Rainer Werner Fassbinder uses loneliness and isolation as recurring motifs in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul a film that unconventionally pays homage to the melodramatic romances of the Hollyw ood golden age. Biberman, Fassbinder, and Micheaux use melodrama in order to illustrate racism in a way that appeals to audiences. The stories of Within Our Gates Salt of the Earth and Ali reduce racism to individual stories of family and romance. Biberman, Fassbinder, and Micheaux create stories with a strong and profound message that use melodrama in order to add appeal. Since Within Our Gates Salt of the Earth and Ali each were one of Biberman Fassbinder and


29 most successful fi lms, the appeal of melodrama and controversy also makes their films more accessible for a wider audience. Therefore, melodrama illustrates racism in a way other genres cannot by reducing the conflict to individual stories, which creates accessibility for audiences as well as relatable characters and plot scenarios.


30 Work Cited Ali : Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele a uf ) Dir. Rainer W. Fassbinder. Perf. Brigitte Mira and El Hedi Ben Salem. Criterion Collection, 2002. DVD. The Birth of a Nation Dir. D.W. Griffith. Perf. Lillian Gish. Epoch Producing Co, 1915. Videocassette. Gaines, Jane Marie. Fire and Desire: Race, Melodrama and Oscar Micheaux Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of S ubjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self making in Nineteenth century America New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. Imitation of Life Dir. Douglas Sirk. Prod. Ross Hunter and Jean Louis. By Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott, and Mahalia Jackson. Perf. Lana Turner, J ohn Gavin, Sandra Dee, Dan O'Herlihy, Susan Kohner, Robert Alda, Juanita Moore, Troy Donahue, Sandra Gould, and Jack Weston. Universal International, 1959. DVD. King, Debra Walker. African Americans and the Culture of Pain Charlottesville: University of V irginia, 2008. Print. Lorence, James J. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1999. Print. Lowenstein, Adam. Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film New York: Columbia UP, 2005. Print. Mayne, Judith. "Fassbinder and Spectatorship." New German Critique 12 (Autumn 1977): 61 74. JSTOR Web. 19 Sept. 2012. . Mercer, John, and Martin Shingler. Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility London: Wallflower, 2004. Print. Sadlier, Darlene J. Latin American Melodrama: Passion, Pathos, and Entertainment Urbana: University of Illinois Press 2009. Print.


31 Salt of the Earth By Michael Wilson. Prod. Paul Jarrico. Dir. Herbert Biberman. Perf. Juan Chacon, Rosoura Revueltas, Will Geer, Mervyn Williams, Frank Talavera, Clinton Jencks, and Virginia Jencks. [s.n.], 1953. Videocassette. Within Our Gates Prod. Oscar Micheaux. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. By Oscar Micheaux. Perf. Evelyn Preer. Micheaux Film Co., Quality Amusement Corp., 1920. Videocassette.