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Band of Angels (1957)

Exposing the Destructive Cliché of the "Tragic Mulatto"

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The 1959 version of Imitation of Life would be the final significant film to explore a black woman passing as white, but the plot in director Douglas Sirk’s glossy, colorful melodrama takes a back seat to the primary story of the white mother and daughter (Lana Turner and Sandra Dee), the outrageous mis en scene, and the dynamic Technicolor photography. It’s as though race is almost an afterthought in the film, in which another non-black woman is cast in the biracial, “tragic mulatto” role.  Actress Susan Kohner, who was nominated for the Academy Award for her portrayal of “Sarah Jane” is often criticized for accepting the part because of her perceived whiteness, but in reality the performer was actually of mixed heritage herself (Jewish and Mexican), which allowed her to fundamentally identify with this unique aspect of the character, a point that is often overlooked in the dialogue passing film and Imitation of Life (DVD Commentary).

While Pinky’s mammy-esque grandmother Dicey (Ethel Waters) is the only African American female character to actively challenge their daughter-figure’s self-hatred and break through (“that’s a sin before God and you know it!” she roars upon learning about her granddaughter’s passing), the petulant Sarah Jane’s refusal of her darker-skinned mother Annie (Juanita Moore) in Sirk’s 1959 version of Hurst’s novel of course mirrors Peola’s rejection of Delilah in Stahl’s 1934 film: both instances of racial passing result in the death of the sainted mother, the tragedy of which inevitably paints the women as stereotypes despite the excellent, attentive work by the performers.

The mercurial life, career, and eventual untimely death of the talented, beautiful, biracial Hollywood star Dorothy Dandridge, whose work in Carmen Jones personified the archetype, finally exposed the destructive cliché of the “tragic mulatto” on a level that would actually mortally wound the tragic mulatto. Though she occasionally made appearances from time to time – from Nina Mae McKinney’s too brief stint as a multifaceted light-skinned cross-over star to Lonette McKee’s mercurial mid-1970s turn as the electric “Sister” in the Harlem-set musical Sparkle (Sam O’Steen, 1976), the appearance of this particular passing trope has been supplanted for other types of passing that including the transgressing of rigid gender binaries and the performance of heteronormativity by queer characters.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)

Films such as For Colored Girls (Tyler Perry, 2010), based on Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide | when the rainbow is not enuf, now allow for a diverse rainbow of skin colors within a black female microcosmos.  The types are no longer as cut and dry as Bogle once termed them. While the final frontier of passing seems to remains mostly sexuality-based and gender-based, as though black women passing for white has finally been removed from the cinematic language, there are still faint traces of this genre embedded deeply into contemporary cinematic culture.

In Mariah Carey’s (admittedly terrible) Glitter (Vondie Curtis-Hall, 2001), when her character’s ethnicity is called into question, it’s no matter. Her sex appeal, instead, is what matters.“Is she black? Is she white? All I know is I want to fuck her,” says the slimy white DJ as he tries to score her a record deal, highlighting that she could pass for either. In Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (Lee Daniels, 2009), another multiracial character played by Carey, herself multiracial and at the center of an ever-hot debate about her own ethnicity in the press for most of her life, is continually questioned about her race. “What do you think I am?” is her elusive, yet pointed answer.

A star of Carey’s magnitude, and the first African American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar (in director Marc Forster’s 2003 film Monster’s Ball for playing an obvious descendent of the tragic mulatto), Halle Berry has been criticized by the black press for being too-white and celebrated by the white press for her adherence to typically white standards of beauty such as light skin and “non-ethnic” facial features. In her newest film Frankie and Alice (Geoffrey Sax, 2010), Berry plays a stripper suffering from multiple personality disorder, the most prominent of which is a white, epithet-spouting racist.  Also in 2003 director Robert Benton adapted author Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain – about a black college professor (played by white actor Anthony Hopkins) passing as white – to little critical praise and mewling box office, indicating the lack of interest in the subject of racial passing in contemporary culture.

While these cinematic conventions still manage to remain firmly in place and show only faint signs of slow change, no filmmaker would dare to make a film today about a black woman passing as white, nor would any reasonable filmmaker ever even contemplate having a white actress play that character if by some miracle they got the green light. In these respects, US society is (perhaps slowly) becoming more like Brazil in accepting blurred color lines, but passing now can still widely be seen in the areas of gender and sexuality. In celebrated, Oscar-nominated films where characters try to pass for the opposite gender—Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Pierce, 1999) shows a woman passing as a man, while Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2006) shows a woman passing as a man – or where queer characters pass for straight such as Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2006). 

Tragedy still abounds for those who pass, as if to issue a warning to everyone that you should not be yourself, that it’s shameful. Those who dare to oppose the rigid binaries of gender and sexuality, just as the black women passing for white did in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, risk their lives. If the cycle that is washing the stain of the race passing concept out of cinematic language can be trusted, perhaps in 50 to 88 years’ time, this ostensibly shameful concept – whether focused on race, gender, sexuality, or class – will (hopefully) be gone from film altogether.

New York University professor Manthia Diawara cannily observes in Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance that the role of the spectator in modern film culture is passive, which makes real social change moves at a snail’s pace. At this rate, queer and transgender audiences might expect to see more realistic representations of themselves somewhere around the turn of the next century or so. Until then, those who choose a life of passing will have to continue living in the cinematic shadows until what Diawara calls “spectatorial resistance” [Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (7th ed. 2009): 775] to these passing stories becomes more active. Hang in there.

Matt Mazur is a Brooklyn-based film publicist who works on campaigns for documentaries, independent and foreign language films. A die-hard cinephile and lover of pop culture, he spends his free time writing about what he is not working on. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Mazur

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