Monday, October 14, 2013



Characters with a desire to become something that they are not in order to escape their realities have been present from the earliest American films to the present. The popular encyclopedia of American cinema, Videohound, categorizes films with these characters under "Not-So-Mistaken-Identity". Of these "not-so-mistaken identity" films, more than half of the characters in question are black passing as white. This reflects the American obsession with race, authenticity, and reinvention.

As characters whose racial identity could rest somewhere between black and white, passing characters have the potential to subvert racial categories by proving the falsity of the black and white racial binary. Elaine Ginsberg argued that the power of passing narratives is "its interrogation of the essentialism that is the foundation of identity politics, passing has the potential to create a space for creative multiple identities, to experiment with multiple subject positions, and to cross social and economic boundaries that exclude or oppress." (16) However in most popular American films, these characters are never allowed the freedom to define themselves and live with their choices.

Despite the possibilities their existence in a society anxious about interracial sex suggests, they are actually used most often to prove that it is not possible to transcend racial categories. And just in case the repeated humiliation, violence, and personal sacrifices they endure in the films did not persuade the audience to value stability in racial identity, more traditional, stereotypical black characters are always present, and usually placed at the moral center of the films, to reinforce racist definitions of blackness and whiteness.

When they were released, most of these films were viewed as serious attempts to resolve "the problem of the color line" (DuBois). However they rely on existing assumptions about race to promote unequal power relationships between blacks and whites (i.e. the submissive black side-kick and their liberal white friend). Furthermore, by only allowing the passing characters two choices (i.e. being black or white), the black and white racial binary is reinforced and the possibility for a racially and culturally diverse society is rejected.

In "White Americans, the New Minority?: Non-Blacks and the Ever-Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness", Jonathan W. Warren and France Winddance Twine provided the history of assimilation for immigrant groups and asserted that, "precisely because Blacks represent the other against which Whiteness is constructed, the backdoor to Whiteness is open to non-Blacks. Slipping through that opening is, then, a tactical matter for non-Blacks of conforming to White standards, of distancing themselves from Blackness, and of reproducing anti-Black ideas and sentiments." Passing films portray the process by which light-skinned blacks try to pass as, or assimilate to white. However they never succeed in these films because of their black blood. Their failure proves that blackness is real and cannot be changed and therefore that whiteness is also stable, thereby allowing white audiences to rest assured that they cannot "at any moment become a slave, or black". (Browder)

The majority of passing films were released during periods of cultural crises in the United States. The three decades with the most successful (based on box office figures) passing films are 1930-1960. During this period the nation experienced the Great Depression, WWII, and the Civil Rights Movement. The purpose of this website is to analyze these films within their historical and cultural contexts to learn more about how blacks and whites responded to racial passing. The films and the audiences' response to the films can help us learn more about the following:

  • How blacks and whites viewed themselves and each other;

  • The racial politics at the time the films were released;

  • The relationships between race, gender, and class;

  • Generational conflicts regarding race;

  • The importance of films in the construction of race; and

  • Passing in a larger cultural context (i.e. why passing also occurs based on ethnicity, gender, and class differences).

Finally, the scholarship on passing has changed significantly over time. The ideological shifts in the ways passing is interpreted by scholars will bring us closer to understanding what this cultural knot reveals about contemporary American culture.

Types of Passing
- race, gender, class, ethnic
- permanent, temporary, for convenience (e.g. at a movie theatre)
- known or unknown to the person who is passing
- with or without consent from the family

- escape slavery (e.g. only in novels, Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom)
- "live like a human being" (e.g. stated by the passing character in Pinky)
- increase opportunities (e.g. Veiled Aristocrats, Lost Boundaries, Soul Man)
- investigative (e.g. Black Like Me, Gentleman's Agreement, "White Like Me")
- interracial romance (e.g. Shadows)
- gain acceptance (e.g. My Man Godfrey)

Source: Virginia