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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)



Since white skin privilege could not exist without blackness, laws were passed to prevent those categories from being "diluted". Interracial relationships were frowned upon in many countries, however the United States had the most stringent rules (and harsh punishments) for blacks who had relations with whites. Jules Zanger ("The Tragic Octoroon in Pre-Civil War Fiction") wrote, "The very existence of the octoroon convicted the slaveholder of prostituting his slaves and selling his children for pofit. Thus, the choice of the octoroon rather than the full-blooded black to dramatize the suffering of the slave not only emphasized the pathos of the slave's condition but, more importantly, emphasized the repeated pattern of guilt of the Southern slaveholder. The whiter the slave, the more undeniably was the slaveholder guilty of violating the terms of the stewardship which apologists postulated in justifying slavery." (pg. 235)

The first laws prohibiting marriage between blacks and whites, were passed in Maryland in 1661. To enforce these laws, blackness was defined by the "one-drop rule": anyone with one drop of black blood was legally black. The laws against miscegenation survived in many states until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in the Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia decision.

Many writers, particularly African American writers have used characters who are children of interracial couples to demonstrate the instability of race. Hazel Carby asserted that, "it is no historical accident that the mulatto figure occurs more frequently in Afro-American fiction at a time when the separation of the races was being institutionalized throughout the South. As a mediating device the mulatto had two narrative functions: it enabled an exploration of the social relations between the races, relations that were increasingly proscribed by Jim Crow laws, and it enabled an expression of the sexual relations between the races, since the mulatto was a product not only of proscribed consensual relations but of white sexual domination." (236) In films, the mulatto characters provided a sexual tension that mammy figures were denied. However they paid a price for the liberties allowed to them on the big screen and have, for the most part, been what Donald Bogle called "tragic mulattas".


According to Donald Bogle the tragic mulatto "is made likeable--even sympathetic (because her white blood, no doubt)--and the audience believes that the girl's life could have been productive and happy had she not been a 'victim of divided racial inheritance'." (9) All passing characters (from black to white) are mulattos, and in the films examined in this website, all of them have been tragic. Because of the American racial binary of black and white, in popular film, the mulatto is forced to choose between being black or white. The passing character is by definition choosing being white but cannot escape their blackness. By the end of the films, most of the passing characters are still in pain and torn between between worlds.


Before film, passing was a popular theme in literature. Many of the most well known American authors (e.g. William Wells Brown, Charles Chestnutt, Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, Jessie Fausett, Frances Harper, Langston Hughes, Fannie Hurst, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, Sinclair Lewis, Claude McKay, George Schuyler, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jean Toomer, Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, and Walter White) used passing characters in their stories.

Many abolitionists used passing characters as a tool for questioning the arbitrariness of race. Before Stowe created fictional characters that passed to escape slavery (e.g. in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eliza passes as both white and male), there were many documented examples of slaves who passed to escape into freedom. Judith Berzon (Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction) notes that the term "pass" in this context came into use because slaves were required to have passes to travel and some light skinned slaves were able to just pass through without the required documentation.

A popular published account of slaves who passed, William Craft's Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom; or the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860) described white children being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Laura Browder, Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities, argued that "these illustrations spoke to readers' anxieties that it was possible for anyone to become black, to take on the status of a slave." Craft, like many of the authors who would come after him, realized that whiteness was constructed as the opposite of blackness. By drawing attention to examples of people with black blood who looked white, whiteness and the privileges allowed by it were also questioned. The use of passing characters in literature continued through Reconstruction and increased with urbanization because of the possibilities for anonymity in the larger cities.