|Vintage Pulp||Mar 18 2020|
Mixed race woman finds herself in a cultural grey area.
You sometimes hear the term “mixed race,” but as far as black and white in America goes, in practice there isn't any such thing. In the past, half black was termed “mulatto,” a quarter black was “quadroon,” and one eighth black was “octoroon.” The fact that white America invented these terms shows you that whites were obsessed with knowing at all times exactly what the ratio was of cocoa to milk. And in reality, of course, all those people with their various shades were fully black in terms of day-to-day treatment. The same is true in 2020, without the demeaning terminology. Government forms may have a box for mixed race or n/a, but in the real world a person who appears to be even a little black is still treated fully black.
I Passed for White, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1960, deals with this cultural truth. It was based upon a novel by Reba Lee, as told to Mary Hastings Bradley, and stars Sonya Wilde, a white actress. Her mere casting says more than the script can, but even so, this is an interesting little b-movie. Not good, exactly, but certainly watchable. Wilde plays Bernice Lee, a beautiful young woman who'd be happy to be either white or black but can't stand being something in between. Tired of all the unpleasantness and uncertainty, she decides to take the solution available to her and become white, renaming herself Lila Brownell. Respect, career, and romance quickly follow.
The question soon arises for Bernice/Lila of whether she can pretend to be something she's not, whether she can disown her black family, whether she can live in peace when there's the constant fear of discovery, whether she can be to witness racism and, like most of white America, ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist, and whether she can explain to her white husband why she dances so well. It's not possible to explore all this to great depth in ninety-three minutes, but the film doesn't have to because all these questions are familiar to viewers. As we've noted before, science has trash-binned the concept of race because it doesn't exist biologically. I Passed for White is more than sixty years old, yet is still a reminder that, culturally, the day when race doesn't exist is a long, long way off.
I Passed for WhiteSonya WildeJames FranciscusReba LeeMary Hastings Bradleyposter artcinemamovie review