‘Passing’ is when a person of a racial group is accepted or passed as a different race. This is usually a result of subjection to racial discrimination and segregation.
Passing was introduced as a film genre in the 30s, at a time when film makers were experimenting with racial performativity on the big screen, to show the reality of racial privilege.
The last major ‘passing’ film was called Imitation of Life in 1959 by Fred Wilcox. Which tells the story of a white single mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who aspires to be a Broadway star. She meets Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black widow, who becomes the caretaker of Lora’s daughter, Suzie (Sandra Dee), whilst in the meantime Lora focuses on her acting career.
However, Lora’s desire for stardom sabotages her relationship with daughter Suzie at, while at the same time, Annie’s light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), struggles with her African-American identity and rejects her mother by trying to pass as white.
This genre was particularly popular in Hollywood during the 1940s when racial segregation was common.
Other popular passing films include Pinky by Eliza Kazan (1949) and Show Boat by George Sidney (1951) which both tell stories of mixed-race, light skin characters who had passed for white in the hopes of being able to experience white privilege. The shock and exposure of this made it a popular hit in film at the time.
Today, actress Rebecca Hall who you might recognise from Red Riding: 1974 is reviving the taboo genre by directing her adaption of Nella Larsen’s novel ‘Passing’ (1929). The film features stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as the main characters. The novel tells the tale of two childhood friends who are both light skinned enough to pass for white but choose to live their lives as black women.
Although since the 60s the taboo genre lost popularity, within the last decade it has begun to regain popularity again.
In the 2004 film ‘The Human Stain’ Anthony Hopkins portrays an African American man who has passed as white for most of his adult life in order to achieve his academic and professional goals.
And then in 2007 crime film Slow Burn portrayed themes of interracial dating as well as ‘passing” or pretending to be a member of another race.
As well as this, the film/documentary ‘Black/White & All That Jazz’ (2007) tells a story of the singer/actor Herb Jeffries who identifies as a man of colour in order to be accepted as a jazz singer, even though he has Sicilian and Irish ancestry.
The new film adaptation of ‘Passing’ is set to be the first major film about the topic in over 35 years.
Not only will the film convey themes of racism, it will also cover topics of mix-race identity, class status, and light skin prejudice.
The casting definitely addresses some concerns of white-washing in cinema and it will be interesting to see how the constraints of racial identity are performed on screen.
Text: Chloe Humphries
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