“Life is but a walking shadow,” wrote William Shakespeare in Macbeth. In film studies, we frequently consider the extreme contrast of light and dark, of noirish chiaroscuro designs that were born from the severe German expressionist lines. These are the “shadows” that highlight the pronounced differences between black and white, between coruscation and silhouette, between good and evil. The complex interplay between these two diametrically-opposing forces is one of the most essential technical elements of a film’s design, illuminating, reflecting and projecting the subconscious and highlighting implicit narrative themes in a visual language that aids the spectator’s understanding of the art as they read it. Nowhere is this essential cinematic contrast more apparent than upon the skins of characters in films about passing – a trope in which (usually female, usually biracial African American/Caucasian) pass for white, abandoning their black heritage and otherness to reap the benefits of whiteness. The light is the positive signifier, while the dark is the negative.
Until recently, this particular leitmotif was refracted bluntly in the way race dynamics were depicted in film in general. There were “black” films and “white” films, but rarely did any movie dare to highlight what life was like for any realistic scope of biracial characters who existed in true Jungian shadow-self, caught between these two worlds, standing on a near-literal precipice with one foot in African American experience, the other firmly in majority white culture, confronted with an impossible choice: live in truth as a person of color, be marginalized and treated like dirt, or risk “passing” for white to gain societal advantage. This concept was, from post-Reconstruction through the ‘60s, a much-discussed, weighty social issue, evidenced in the presence of the passing narrative in black and white art of the time, and it was brought most to social awareness in cinematic depictions, many of which proved to be financial and critical successes.
While racial passing seems outdated by today’s standards, and the very thought of a black person needing to pass for white actually smacks of racism, this essay repositions the importance of passing as a genre by looking at four key Hollywood films from the early-‘30s through the late-‘50s: two versions of Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl in 1934 and Douglas Sirk in 1959), Pinky (Elia Kazan, 1949), and Band of Angels (Raoul Walsh, 1957). We examine how race passing has become supplanted by other more socially acceptable sub-modes of the passing narrative (for example: the quintessential passing model now largely excludes race but focuses instead on gender and sexuality), but also how the distant ancestors of race passing can still somewhat insidiously found lurking unnamed in the world of contemporary film, from the extreme popularity of a biracial actress like Halle Berry (who has been nicknamed a “black Barbie” because of the way she conforms to standards of white female beauty) to the teasing, exoticized, and even sexually-festishized presence of the racially-ambiguous Mariah Carey in films such as Glitter (Vondie Curtis-Hall, 2001) and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (Lee Daniels, 2009).
By the time the concept of passing —which playwright Ntzozake Shange calls “that which ‘they’ can’t ascertain on ‘their’ own” [“Introduction”, Passing, (2002): xi]—was first used as a primary plot in a film in director John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934), it was evident that racial passing was becoming a gendered genre, mostly with female protagonists, as well as a quintessentially American phenomenon. Nella Larsen, one of only two non-white, American female novelists working during the Harlem Renaissance (Henderson, xix), and the most prominent author to deploy the racial passing convention in popular works such as Quicksand (1928) and the aptly-titled Passing (1929), made it a point to highlight the racial fluidity and cultural hybridity of people of biracial descent living abroad in the latter story. Centering on the lead characters of Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, Passing depicts the struggles of Kendry, a light-skinned black woman who passes for white full-time and is married to a white racist, and Redfield, the darker-skinned of the two who occasionally passes as a hobby while living a privileged bourgeois life with her physician husband, Brian.
Dr. Redfield longs to transplant the family to the multi-cultural Brazil where “he imagines color is of no import” [Shange, “Introduction”, Passing, (2002): xiv]. With a diverse population that draws from a hearty mixing of Portuguese, African, Eastern European and indigenous peoples, race – specifically racial ambiguity—isn’t really as big a problem in this society. The idea of a black person passing for white today in a place like Brazil, where ethnic diversity, multiraciality, and cultural hybridity are embraced, is nonsensical. Even in the United States, where people who are not white, moneyed, or heterosexual (or some variation) are almost always oppressed, the policing and privileging of skin tones varying like an chocolate silk ombre from espresso to caramel is a reality for dark-skinned people, who are marginalized, while the fairer-complexioned are praised as beautiful because of their ostensibly closer proximity to whiteness (American culture’s dominant idea of “beautiful”).
In The American Melting Pot? Miscegenation Laws in the United States, historians Barbara C. Cruz and Michael J. Berson write that “there are more people of mixed heritage being born in the US than at any other time in the nation’s history” and that by 1995 the number of children born from a mixed race union had grown to one in 20 (The American Melting Pot?: Miscegenation Laws in the United States, by Barbara C. Cruz and Michael J. Berson, OAH Magazine, Summer 2001). Because of this, it’s very difficult to imagine anybody who has even a trace of African American ancestry in their family tree top openly denying this facet of themselves and deliberately trying to “pass” for any other race than their own: Mexican, Spanish, South American, Native or indigenous.
But to properly dissect the passing film, we must first clarify how the passing genre is linked to race and racism. Arcane and archaic by today’s standards, passing does not really openly happen much in art or life, but once it was a hugely popular social convention that pointed out extreme social inequities faced by people of colors. By using an explicitly feminist lens to analyze the intersections of race/class/gender, in what follows, I examine the three essential Hollywood films that prominently feature the topic – Imitation of Life, Pinky (and to a lesser extent, the fourth, Band of Angels), aiming to uncover the complex intersectionality communicated by a form firmly rooted in slavery and post-slavery conditions, while also looking to simultaneously stress the significance of these films as milestones for African American women in film despite their antiquated brand of racism.
Critic David Crary argues that the passing genre is “a phenomenon that seems like a relic of the segregationist past” and denounces it outright and scholar Mae G. Henderson believes that it has become “defunct” [“Critical Forward”, Passing, (2002): xx]. Below, I argue that there is much to be celebrated and revealed about these artifacts and specifically the women who acted in them. Robert Stam and Louise Spence, in “Colonialism, Racism and Representation”, agree that examining these representations and the social contexts in which they appear is important because looking at all images of black culture on film – whether positive or negative – provides a clearer snapshot of reality than reducing the scope of a study to only positive imagery. They claim that an “emphasis on realism has often betrayed an exaggerated faith in the possibilities of verisimilitude in art in general” [Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (7th ed, 2009): 752 – 757].
Men were initially the focus of many of these passing stories, but it’s not a huge surprise that when the protagonists became largely, popularly female, the stakes were far different. First unflatteringly depicted in early films such as the two-reel The Debt (1912), In Humanity’s Cause (1913), In Slavery Days (1913), and The Octoroon (1913), the passing “mulatta” is made likable and sympathetic, scholar Donald Bogle contends, “because of her white blood” (9). In D.W. Griffith’s incendiary epic The Birth of a Nation (1915), the trope took full, dangerous shape in the “cinnamon-colored gal” character of Lydia, who was the only “black” role in the film to be given an active emotional life despite being played by a white actress. Bogle points out that Griffith was “the first important movie director to separate his black women into categories based on their individual colors” [Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed., 2009): 22] and that division survived throughout most of film history.
Sexual, gendered violence was a prevailing theme, which became categorized by Bogle as the trope of the “tragic mulatto”, a character type he archly calls “a moviemaker’s darling” [Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed., 2009): ] that posits a woman of color – and of mixed heritage – as being inherently conflicted about her race, her body, and her sexuality to the point that there is no other choice for her but to die. When women dared to cross the color line, there were always higher consequences because she was transgressing two borders: one racial and one gendered. This was a time where to be simply black or simply a woman was dangerous enough, but to be a black woman meant to be subjected to rampant marginalization, hence the birth of the Modernist passing narrative, in which a light-skinned black woman could escape her oppressed life by simply renouncing her blackness and living as white, which Henderson writes is a “’valuable’ and ‘valued’ property […] and to be ‘not black’ meant to be ‘not slave’” [“Critical Forward”, Passing, (2002): xxxv].
Passing Was Becoming Passé
The origin of the term “passing” finds roots in its connection to 19th-century African American slave narratives such as Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860), where “two slaves successfully escape from bondage by having the light-skinned Ellen ‘pass’ for the white (and male) master of her dark-skinned slave husband William” [Henderson, “Critical Forward”, Passing, (2002): xxiii]. Like the mode of the slave narrative, “the passing genre explicitly and implicitly challenges hierarchical and discriminatory social, political, and economic practices” [ibid.: xxxiii], while also critiquing patriarchal authority and the inequality it breeds. These forms, Henderson contends, were popular with black and white audiences, because they “ethnographically educated readers about black life while simultaneously constructing and critiquing whiteness for them” [ibid.: xxxiv]. At the time of its inception, the passing genre “dialectically opposed the postbellum literature that sought to reinscribe the rigid color line” [ibid.: xxxiv], which means that white writers such as Thomas Dixon (the writer responsible for The Clansman, which would later be turned into The Birth of a Nation by Griffith) “tried to paint the mulatto as threatening or dangerous to Southern, white society at large, the passing novel put the onus of blame for oppression and terror on whites” [ibid.: xxxiv].
The only film bold enough to look at the phenomenon of passing during the slave period is also the last to formally, cinematically address the subject in that era. By 1957 passing was becoming passé, and African American Civil Rights became the primary, pressing focus in films about the black experience, manifested in the desire of black society to be able to enjoy a larger degree of parity in the white-dominated culture after years of being legally denied. It’s hard to say what stance director Raoul Walsh’s operatically messy Band of Angels is trying to take in either dialogue, if any, but it remains a bizarre, defacto history lesson nonetheless about the dire treatment of most women during slavery: white, black, and especially biracial. Desperately, perhaps even unknowingly bigoted, and rife with imagery that invokes some of the most horrible racist stereotypes ever coined – “the coon, the tom, the buck, the mammy, the tragic mulatto” (see Bogle) abound – the film is tough to watch because of its outmoded portrayal of black language and themes.
Telling the story of Amantha “Manty” Starr (the lily white Yvonne DeCarlo, ten years too old for the part), the film begins with a young Manty being told the story of her beloved, deceased mother by a requisite mammy figure caricature. The slaves know the secret Manty does not: her mother was a very light-skinned slave owned (yet inexplicably loved) by her white father. In effect, the adult Manty is not made aware of her own involuntary passing until her father’s death, when she is publicly decreed a “mongrel” and “chattel” by white racists who force her to not only abandon her previous life as an affluent white woman for the oppressed life of a black woman, but to actually be put on the auction block as a slave because of the “one drop” rule that dictated a person with any black ancestry be classified as non-white, and therefore not fully human in the eyes of the law [Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1988): 37].
Because of her near-white skin, Manty realizes quickly the currency her racial ambiguity can afford her, yet once she finds out about her roots, she never denies her blackness, and insists on being treated like all of the other slaves despite her obvious great beauty and value as the trophy child bride of an alcoholic, elderly white master Hamish Bond (Clark Gable, clearly drunk in real life throughout the performance, and repulsively too old to be playing DeCarlo’s lover). While Manty’s circumstances elicit a hidden militancy in her, she is still subjugated as the property of a white man, as his exotic object of sexual fetishization and morbid, violent carnal desire. It seems that Bond’s had a succession of enslaved lovers, and Manty’s predecessor, the housekeeper Michele (Carolle Drake), tells her she should feel fortunate rather than angry.
Manty never consciously tries to pass for white, though, and when she finally does, she immediately finds that passing leaves much to be desired; unlike the protagonists of both versions of Imitation of Life, Peola (Fredi Washington) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who find that passing for white might have some benefits, but will ultimately force them to meet with scathing, life-altering, devastating consequences that will render them yet another figure of the tragic “mulatta” trope [Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed., 2009): 19]. With Manty, on the other hand, we are supposed to be happy for because she allegedly breaks the rule of the racist archetype by living a happy life hidden away from society in the swamp, wife of a drunken old white man by the film’s end. But her end, even if portrayed as upbeat, is arguably quite tragic.
It’s also important to highlight that passing as a genre was a concern that specifically pandered to an educated, affluent audience and that fairer skin was often associated with the upper classes [Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1988): 184-5]. Though the popularity of the genre suggests that passing was an important social issue from the immediate post-slavery period and on, at its height of the Harlem Renaissance, the topic of passing was a much-discussed one amongst mainly for upper and middle class blacks and whites, but remained a relatively unknown concern and topic for lower class, darker-skinned blacks [Henderson, “Critical Forward”, Passing, (2002): xxx]. The topic of passing in literature, and eventually in film, is usually centered on class, and the idea that passing for white will result in some kind of cultural capital for whoever is passing.
The light-skinned Washington and Beavers, a dark-skinned, full-figured actress, were in fact the first major black female stars, and Delilah and Peola were the first substantial black female role to date in the still-young film industry. Despite a sappy milieu filled with problematic, ignorant liberal goodwill by today’s standards, Beavers still managed to infuse her stock mammy character with a degree of humanity, but in many ways was still represented in a humiliatingly racist way by the script, particularly when her big, dramatic moment finds her reclaiming the title of “mammy” defiantly (“I ain’t no white mother, I’m your mammy, child.”) The actress was widely criticized by the black media of the time, to which she countered “I would rather play a maid than be a maid” (DVD extras documentary). Delilah and Bea form a bond that transcends employee-employer, one that is more akin to the dynamic of a husband and wife, or family. Bea, the most viable choice to be the “breadwinner” as Bogle calls her [Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed. 2009): 59], goes out to make money hawking her deceased husband’s famous maple syrup, while Delilah stays home to take care of the kids and run the household.
The Great Depression is in full swing and both women—in fact all women irregardless of color—are marginalized. This renders the scrappy spirit of Imitation of Life a bit false, and the alliance these women form while relying on each other’s strength to transcend is deceptively joyous, given the white characters benefit from the black characters’ unpaid labor. When scrutinized closer, the power dynamic between Bea and Delilah is very disturbing. Symmetrically, Delilah offers up her family recipe for pancakes – the perfect compliment to Bea’s burgeoning syrup empire – as a gift. She considers the privilege of being Bea’s domestic slave payment enough. When the business really takes off, Bea offers her servant a mere twenty percent of the profits, which Delilah refuses. “Oh, honey chile, please don’t send me away,” she begs, as though she can’t exist without being subservient to her white mistress. It’s no wonder Peola doesn’t want to be black: she sees her mother constantly humiliated while the fair Bea gets more and more powerful and rich at Delilah’s expense, enjoying an autonomy that few women were familiar with in that era. Peola hates being black, ostensibly because she cannot enjoy any of these white privileges that she sees every day, and, as a result, she chooses to live as a white woman far away from home.
With a growing popularity in literary form, and Civil Rights a cause celebré, the concept of passing quite naturally translated into popularity in film with John M. Stahl’s adaptation of Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life. Of the four films discussed here, only the 1934 version of Imitation of Life actually casts a woman of African American descent to play the role of a black woman passing for white – the others are all played by actresses of various backgrounds passing for black. There are not, and have never been, a huge variety of roles for very light-skinned black women outside of the classic racist archetype of the tragic mulatto.
Hurst’s Peola as written was definitely a cliché and in the film version, the tragic mulatto stereotype is perhaps ratcheted up a notch as Peola “rejects her mother, leaves home, and attempts to cross the color line [Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed. 2009): 59].” As played with great humanity and pathos by Washington, an actress whose life eerily reflected the funhouse mirror distortion of her character’s warped self-image, Bogle argues that “Peola became a password for non-passive resistance”, rather than for tragedy. Ironic, then that Washington’s life and career would become synonymous with the character type of the tragic mulatto, the image she tried to fight against her entire life but ended up embodying.
Washington is best-known, and received the most critical adoration as an actress, for playing Peola in Imitation of Life. Though author Charlene Regester says that both Washington and co-star Beavers “insisted they were unlike the characters they played in this film [African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960 (2010): 107],” Donald Bogle contends that Washington’s “public persona and private life looked at one point as if they’d merged. Washington’s facial features and skin color rendered her “indistinguishable” from a white woman, and because of this, the actress proved hard-to-cast in film roles as producers didn’t know where to place her. Washington herself refused to deny her blackness or play up her whiteness and frequently spoke about “managers, producers, and film executives” who persisted that she pass for white in order to get film work, a notion which she angrily rejected (“Why should I have to pass for anything but an artist?” she once lamented) [Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks (4th ed. 2009): 123].
Imitation of Life (1934)
If the protaganist is a woman, such as Clare Kendry in Larsen’s novel Passing, she will be seeking a rich, white husband, from whom she will hide her “dark” secret in order to gain social status, and economic privileges and security. Clare passes in order to spare herself from the outright atrocities committed towards African American women during this period in which lynching, open racism, and outright hate speech were not only commonplace but also supported by laws and a government that had no intention of giving equal rights to any people of color, let alone to black people who were enslaved only a scant few years prior. Passing, as a concept, is in fact a direct consequence of slavery, a system that legally defined children whose mothers were slaves as slaves (matrilineally), no matter if there fathers were the white slave masters raping African American women or not (Psychologist Priscilla Schulz later described the situation as a form of “sexual tyranny”).
Mae Henderson explores this theory further, claiming that “idea of racial intermixing also lies at the heart of passing and hints at the threat to the ideology of whites at the time for perfect racial purity and for white supremacy, making it a fundamentally radical or ‘transgressive’ form of art” [“Critical Forward”, Passing, (2002): xxxvi]. During Reconstruction, there were few laws in place to protect newly-freed slaves, but quickly, as the period ended in 1877; Jim Crow laws began to prevent blacks from assimilating into free society [ibid.: xxxvi]. Even in the messy aftermath emancipation, Plessy vs. Ferguson was decided, declaring the “separate but equal” doctrine legal and thus justifying the continuation of racial segregation (this judgment would not be overturned until 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education]. Historian Paula Giddings called the miscegenation laws in the United States that were in place as early as 1656 in Virginia “a circle of denigration which managed to combine racism, sexism, greed, and piety” [When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, (1988): 37]. It would not be until 1967 that the Supreme Court conclusively ruled on the issue in Loving v. Virginia, invalidating Virginia’s miscegenation laws as unconstitutional.
When Fannie Hurst first published her popular book Imitation of Life in 1933, it was necessary for Delilah the cook and maid (Louise Beavers) to explain to her white employer that her biracial character Peola’s father was a very light-skinned black man, which accounted for the child’s white-ish appearance. This is a key footnote that had to be included in the film adaptation, so as not to offend or shock white audiences who might believe that Peola was the product of an interracial union of any kind, which was a criminal offense that carried a sentence of up to ten years of hard labor in the state pen. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 which strictly censored any even remotely questionable content in movies (and was also known as Hays Code), explicitly stated that the depiction of “miscegenation… is forbidden” (Wikipedia).
According to Donald Bogle, “the humanization of the Negro servant was carried to new and highly publicized heights” by Imitation of Life, and that while President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal hinted at growing American liberalism (57), yet Peola’s mother Delilah still had to explain just how her nearly-white daughter came to be so light-skinned in an era where the use of skin lighteners and hair straighteners in order to approximate standards of white beauty were the rage with black women. Products such as “Black-No-More” “questioned the sincerity of racial pride and concluded that blacks were really ashamed of their race” [Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, (1988): 186]. Delilah still must specifically speak to the issue of the race of her child’s father to appease the curiosity of her white employer Bea (Claudette Colbert), after the little girl befriends Bea’s daughter Jessie and they all move in together – but most importantly to the white spectator, just so they know that any real-life laws about interracial liaisons were not broken in this fictional, melodramatic universe. It’s a conservative move for a film that claims to be socially-conscious and one can imagine how much more subversive it could have been had that detail been left out altogether, because it’s truly not important to Peola’s story whether her father was black, white or anything in between.
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.
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.
Exposing the Destructive Cliché of the "Tragic Mulatto"
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)
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.