Italian-Americans’ Contested Whiteness in Early Cinematic Melodrama
The concept of ‘whiteness’ has acquired a central role in race studies. The historical process through which the Italian-American community became ‘white’ is a relevant case study for showing the constructedness of this category and the power relations that underpin it. This paper focuses on the role played by early cinematic melodrama in light of wider social and political transformations that led to the assimilation of Italian immigrants into American racial discourse. In early twentieth-century United States, mass immigration and the institutionalisation of cinema were two inter-related phenomena. Cinema became a ‘respectable’ medium by assigning itself a moral and didactic role. Attending film screenings was, for millions of immigrants, a way to become ‘Americanised’. In the same period, wider socio-political discourses contributed to the re-signification of ‘whiteness’ in American society. In order to accommodate both the need of cheap immigrant labour and nativist ideologies concerned with the purity of the ‘white’ (e.g. Anglo-American) core of society, ‘whiteness’ became fragmented into an array of racially inflected ‘national types’. Among them, Italian-Americans were only provided with ‘probationary whiteness’, and were still deemed as racially inferior and ‘unfit for self-government’. US cinema deployed melodramatic narratives to negotiate the ‘white’ status of Italian-Americans through the polarised moral discourse that characterised this particular genre. It is possible to trace different stylistic paradigms of early American cinema by comparing several melodramas directed by D.W. Griffith and later movies, such as Reginald Barker’s The Italian (1915). The representations of Italian-Americans as Others in cinematic melodrama, and their subsequent assimilation into dominant racial ideology, reveals the variable and complex meanings of the social category of whiteness.