Home » Cinema » ‘Passing for white’: how a taboo film genre is being revived to expose racial privilege

‘Passing for white’: how a taboo film genre is being revived to expose racial privilege

Rebecca Halls directorial debut is an adaptation of Nella Larsens 1929 novel Passing, a theme little seen since the likes of Show Boat and Pinky

Hollywood once loved films about passing. The genre was popular in the 1940s and 50s, when segregation was rife and the one-drop rule which deemed anybody with even a trace of African ancestry to be black prevailed. Box-office hits included Elia Kazans Pinky (1949) and George Sidneys musical Show Boat (1951), which featured light-skinned, mixed-race characters who passed for white in the hopes of enjoying the privileges whiteness confers. The secrets, the scandal and the sheer sensationalism of it all made for excellent melodrama.

Now Rebecca Hall, the star of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Red Riding, is revisiting the genre with her directorial debut, an adaptation of Nella Larsens seminal 1929 novel Passing. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga will feature in the project, which tells the story of childhood friends, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, who are both light-skinned enough to pass for white but choose to live on opposite sides of the colour line.

Exploring her ancestry Rebecca Hall. Photograph: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

Passing, the first major film of its type in decades, comes at a time when film-makers are toying with racial performativity on the big screen. Spike Lees BlacKkKlansman and Boots Rileys Sorry to Bother You revolve around the idea of phonic passing and code switching. On TV, Donald Glovers turn in whiteface as the sinister Teddy Perkins in season two of Atlanta builds on a legacy of such comedy in the work of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle among others.

How will Hall negotiate the tricky history of the genre? Even though it was a real-life phenomenon, most films about passing, including Pinky and Show Boat, have literary roots. William Wells Browns 1853 anti-slavery novel Clotel, which imagines the fate of Thomas Jeffersons mixed race progeny, is perhaps the first American passing novel. Brown used passing to expose the arbitrary nature of white privilege. His mixed-race characters were a manifest symbol of the reality that many powerful, supposedly God-fearing white slaveholding men were coercing and raping enslaved black women and condemning their own children to a life in bondage (although, as Beyonc recently revealed, not all unions were of this nature).

Before long, white writers were using the trope to sensationalise novels. John Stahls 1934 black-and-white adaptation of the Fannie Hurst novel Imitation of Life first brought passing to a mainstream cinema audience. The film depicts the relationship between a white woman, Bea (played Claudette Colbert), her African American housekeeper Delilah (Louise Beavers) and their two children. Stahl cast Fredi Washington, an actor of African American and European descent, to play Delilahs daughter, Peola. Washington had rubbed shoulders with Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, and Paul Robeson and, like Larsen, was involved in the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s, a movement that cultivated African American art in the area north of Manhattans Central Park.

Passing stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are often cast in roles as women of colour. Composite: Getty and Rex

Peola immature, light-skinned, and disillusioned rejects her mother so she can pass for white. Poor Delilah dies broken-hearted. The subsequent funeral scenes are most memorably captured in Douglas Sirks 1959 technicolor remake starring Lana Turner as Lora (Bea), Juanita Moore as Annie (Delilah), and the Mexican-Austrian actor Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane (Peola). After the service, which features an almighty performance from the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Jane barges through the crowd of mourners, halts the funeral procession, rips open the hearse doors and throws herself on to the back of her mothers casket, crying: I didnt mean it.

Both films are classics and are preserved in the US National Film Registry due to their enduring importance to American culture. Stahls film was nominated for three Academy awards; Sirks 1959 adaptation was a box-office smash for Universal. Mother-and daughter-act Moore and Kohner were pitted against each other in the best supporting actress categories at the Academy awards and Golden Globes. Neither won an Oscar; Kohner got the Globe.

Imitation of Life was the last major passing film. Fred Wilcoxs unabashedly sensationalist 1960 movie I Passed for White (tagline: I look white I married white Now I must live with a secret that can destroy us both!) failed to match the success of Sirks film. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement claimed legislative victory after victory. By the late-60s the black is beautiful and black power movements, with their celebration of a distinctly black aesthetic, had gained momentum and passing became pass.

African American film-maker Julie Dashs riposte to the genre the acclaimed short 1982 indie film Illusions, about a 1940s Hollywood actor who is passing for white offered a fleeting but serious addition to the genre. Thanks, in part, to comedies such as Melvin Van Peebles 1970 Watermelon Man and the 1986 college caper Soul Man, passing had become a joke. For many, this was probably for the best. In fact, the feminist critic bell hooks considered the character of Peola so problematic that she once wrote: My pleasure in the screen ended abruptly when I and my sister first watched Imitation of Life.

The genres representation of African American women was often incredibly reductive. Light-skinned, mixed-race women were little more than tragic mulattos. They were portrayed as being confused about their racial identity and their transgressions were punished in a host of unpleasant and sexist ways.

In Imitation of Life, Peolas mother dies; in Vara Casparys 1929 novel The White Girl, Solaria drinks poison after her identity is revealed; Alpine in Geoffrey Barness 1932 book Dark Lustre dies during childbirth; and Julie in Edna Ferbers 1928 novel Show Boat becomes a prostitute. The list goes on. To avoid speculation about the possibility of interracial sex, their darker-skinned counterparts were portrayed as matronly mammies in keeping with Hattie McDaniels Oscar-winning turn in Gone With the Wind. Like McDaniel, Beavers and Moore were typecast as maids for much of their careers, even as they brought dimension and dignity to their limited roles in Imitation of Life.

The genre overlooks questions of colourism, treats racial identity as rigid and fixed, and the complexities of the mixed-race experience are ignored. And then there is the issue of optics. It is tricky for the passing character to move from page to screen. Stahls selection of Washington for the role of Peola was hugely progressive for the 1930s. Not only did he give an actor who identified as black a significant role, but the films monochrome palette meant that Washington really looked white, which petrified southern segregationists.

Maid in Hollywood Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, 1939. Darker-skinned women were often typecast as matronly. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

Few directors upset the norm again. The exceptions include Dash, who cast Lonette McKee in Illusions, and Carl Franklin, who cast Jennifer Beals in the 1995 noir Devil in a Blue Dress. It was safer for white girls to play mixed-race girls playing white girls, so Sirk picked Kohner, and Ava Gardner pipped Lena Horne to the role of Julie in Show Boat. Light-skinned African American actors struggled to get parts in the only Hollywood films about women like them.

Given this context, the forthcoming adaptation of Passing is a fascinating and exciting prospect. Hall, who I would speculate is not typically thought of as a woman of colour, has explained that she is making the film by way of exploring her own mixed-race ancestry. Negga and Thompson, on the other hand, are often cast in roles as women of colour: Negga has played Mildred Loving and Shirley Bassey, while Thompson appeared as the civil rights activist Diane Nash in Ava DuVernays 2014 film Selma. Both actors are keenly aware of the issues at stake. In a 2016 Vogue interview, Negga explained that she was aware of the myriad ways in which her identity and ethnicity might be read, territorialised and co-opted. And while Thompson identifies as a woman of colour, she recently stated in an interview with Net-a-Porter that she was conscious of the ways in which identity is a creation.

Passing is poised to be the first major film about the topic directed by, starring and influenced by women of African descent since Illusions more than 35 years ago. Thompson and Neggas casting certainly redresses some recent concerns about whitewashing in cinema, but how they will perform whiteness remains a matter of intrigue. In a post-black, post-Rachel Dolezal, Black Lives Matter era, when the visceral experience of racism is as acute as ever and yet the bounds of racial identity continue to be tested, it will be fascinating to see how it appears on screen.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/aug/20/passing-film-rebecca-hall-black-white-us-rac

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