Passing Me By

African American Women and 'Passing' As a Film Genre

by Matt Mazur

7 April 2011

Band of Angels (1957) 

Where One Could Blend In

When Washington finally attained a modicum of recognition and success on the stage and onscreen in the ‘30s, the artist began mixing a social consciousness with her acting career to make change in a white-dominated industry, co-founding the Negro Actors Guild with other prominent black artists of the era. When acting work became scarce in the ‘40s, she worked as a columnist, critic, and writer, notably for The People’s Voice, a black newspaper edited by her brother-in-law, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. While the stage and television provided an occasional artistic respite for the hard-to-cast actress, Washington actively left Hollywood films because there were no parts for her that weren’t stereotypical, eventually finding work as an activist and advocate for African American performers. Her final professional title towards the end of the ‘50s was “casting consultant” for African American characters in films such as Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954) and Porgy and Bess (Preminger, 1959).

Washington died in 1994 at the age of 90, and while Imitation of Life remains her most well-known film role, but her name came up frequently in 1949 as Elia Kazan was casting the screen’s first biracial heroine Pinky. The vibrant role was tailor-made for the actresses’ gifts and looks and it was rumored she would play the part. Exemplifying again the cliché of the tragic mulatto, Washington, then in her late-40s, was deemed, in typical Hollywood fashion, “too old” to play the character (which is probably true), which paved the way for yet another white woman – this time Oscar-nominated actress Jeanne Crain— to play a black woman passing for white (Bogle, 61). In 1949, by the time Pinky was successfully released in theaters, the laws that oppressed African Americans and prevented interracial marriage had not changed much, though the social consciousness of such hot-button issues was burgeoning and reflected in the art and pop culture of the era, particularly Kazan’s often-daring films.

Pinky (1949)

Pinky (1949)

Crain’s performance of the title character Pinky presents a biracial woman as the first heroic protagonist of her kind, a true leading character, and the most decidedly professional, educated, non-tragic woman of this kind to be depicted (good qualities that are almost all undone by having a white woman playing black, but I digress). The film showed Pinky—whose parentage is thankfully unexplained—while passing for white, to be afforded a world of privilege, but the second the mask of whiteness was dropped and her masquerade revealed her blackness, Pinky was treated abominably by both black and white characters, arrested, harassed, and terrorized by all, highlighting the terrifyingly unstable social position of the passing narrative’s central character.

Kazan’s directorial oeuvre frequently looked at precarious socially-relevant issues, more so than most other high profile directors of his generation: On the Waterfront (1954), looked at class in a more realistic way than any other Hollywood film had up until that point, while Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) looked cuttingly at anti-Semitism and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) aimed its glance at gender and age politics. In Pinky, Kazan sought to destroy the tragic mulatto trope while working within the established Hollywood system, offering a risky depiction of his heroine as being in a romantic relationship with a white man and showing them kissing onscreen, her paramour indifferent to her race.

In the original end of the film, the plantation that Pinky inherits from rich old white lady Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) is burned to the ground. Kazan changed this detail so as to have an uplifting, empowering conclusion in which Pinky victoriously opens a children’s hospital in her Southern hometown, thus reclaiming her black heritage which was originally rejected by her in a quest for financial security as a college-educated, trained nurse that she felt needed to be attained while passing for white up North, in more cosmopolitan areas where passers could more effortlessly blend in – as witnessed in both versions of Imitation of Life.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article