“Passing” and “Racial Transformation” in Film

Spike Lee’s much-anticipated BlacKkKlansman has an outlandish conceit all the more irresistible because it actually happened. In the late 1970s, the Colorado Springs Police Department’s first-ever African American officer sees a newspaper ad soliciting new recruits for the local Ku Klux Klan. Putting on a “white voice”—shades of Sorry to Bother You—Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) manages all too easily via telephone to arrange a meeting with Klan representatives.

Stallworth then recruits a white officer (Adam Driver) to play the physical half of the persona he’s created over the phone. The undercover duo’s infiltration is so successful that soon they find themselves dealing directly with national KKK “Grand Wizard” David Duke (Topher Grace). The latter is interested in taking the notorious organization in a more politically prominent, “mainstream” direction—but the cops are most interested in following their suspicions that the local chapter is planning a violent strike against black activists.

Lee plays this crazy real-life scenario partly for absurdist comedy. But that shouldn’t downplay how seriously he deals with, and comments on, the underlying issues, or how disturbingly relevant those issues are to today’s political climate, in which open racism and white-power groups have made a dispiriting comeback. The parallels drawn between this past and our present aren’t subtle—but hey, we do not live in subtle times.

As singular as this story may seem, it’s far from the first time that movies have played with racial identity and impersonation to subversive ends. In fact, there’s a long cinematic history of such representations, ranging from the painfully earnest to the wildly satirical.

Of course, in the medium’s earliest days black roles were often played by white actors in “blackface,” usually portraying demeaning racial caricatures in a continuation of a long stage tradition. This began to be frowned upon after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist Civil War drama The Birth of a Nation—a hugely popular landmark in the history of film, albeit one that explicitly glorified (and brought back) the KKK and demonized black people (played by whites) as devious, despicable would-be rapists. It stirred sufficient NAACP-led outcry that dramatic use of blackface declined, though it continued for some years in comedy and musicals (notably those starring early-talkie sensation Al Jolson).

Instead, dramas “crossing the color line” increasingly focused on the phenomenon of “passing”—most often when a person of black or mixed-race ancestry “passes” as white. At first, these narratives typically hewed toward problematic cliché, wherein a light-skinned person (usually a beautiful woman) is ultimately punished for daring to better themself by claiming an “upscale” racial identity. Among major studio films, the most famous examples are both versions of the soap opera Imitation of Life (made in 1934 and 1959), as well as Elia Kazan’s 1949 Pinky—all big hits.

Even as late as 2003, that theme resurfaced in the Philip Roth adaptation The Human Stain, starring Anthony Hopkins as an academic of African-American roots who poses as a white Jewish man his entire adult life. Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, and Gary Sinise also figured in this film by multiple Oscar winner Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer). But at that late date, audiences were now finding it hard to take such stories seriously.

Indeed, “passing”—in both directions—has more often been fodder for comedy in recent years. The Wayans brothers scored a hit in 2004 with White Chicks, in which Shawn and Marlon played FBI agents who don latex “whiteface” to impersonate spoiled-celebutante parodies of the Hilton sisters. Decades earlier, Melvin Van Peebles of proto-“blaxploitation” classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song preceded that revolutionary film with Watermelon Man (1970). In it, black stand-up comic Godfrey Cambridge essayed a noxious white suburban bigot whom fate takes revenge upon: One morning he wakes up to find he’s “turned black,” horrifying his supposedly liberal family and community. Van Peebles’ son Mario Van Peebles later appeared in Charles Lane’s 1991 True Identity, with British comic Lenny Henry as a struggling actor who uses makeup tricks to “turn white” so he can escape Mafia hitmen.

Equally wild (if less intentionally funny) treatments of “passing” enjoyed a brief vogue in low-budget and exploitation cinema of the early-to-mid 1960s when the fight for civil rights was American social issue #1. The very earnest Black Like Me (1964) had James Whitmore as a real-life journalist who’d gone “undercover” (in somewhat ludicrous shoe-polish-blackface, as depicted) to experience and write about what Negro life in America was “really like.” It’s a well-intentioned, discomfiting movie if a dated and often unconvincing one.

A bit less high-minded, perhaps, is 1960’s I Passed For White, with newcomer Sonya Wilde as a beautiful mixed-race Chicagoan frustrated with the opportunities she’s denied when honest about her ethnicity. On a trip to NYC she meets a rich, dashing white man (James Franciscus), and simply fails to correct his assumptions about who and “what” she is. Once they marry, however, the lies required to keep her past well-buried begin to turn into a ticking time bomb.

This final feature by Fred M. Wilcox (who’d directed the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet as well as two original Lassie movies) is also earnestly well-intentioned. Still, things get pretty silly when our heroine is stopped from “making a spectacle of herself…like some cheap dancehall dame” (as her angry hubby puts it) at a country club. There, despite being pregnant, she executes an elaborate dance routine—presumably because, well, aren’t all black people born “entertainers” with innate “rhythm”? It’s a bizarre highlight in an otherwise sincere if clumsy “B” film.

There was also an earlier film called The Black Klansman, though you probably won’t hear Spike Lee mentioning it. In a story rather similar to the 1959 French movie I Spit on Your Grave, which was in turn based on a lurid best-seller about U.S. racial prejudice, Ted V. Mikels’s 1966 cheapie is about a light-skinned jazz musician (Richard Gilden) who travels to a small town after his young daughter is killed there in a Klan attack on a black church. Posing as an eager recruit, he undermines the local KKK from within—adding insult to injury by sleeping with the racist daughter of one of its leaders.

Like drive-in king Roger Corman’s 1962 The Intruder aka I Hate Your Guts—which had no less than William Shatner as a racial trouble-stirrer in a segregated town—this Black Klansman (also known as I Crossed the Color Line) was an attempt to deliver a hard-hitting message in the form of low-budget melodrama. And like that film, it was a financial flop. The subject matter turned off exploitation audiences looking for cheap thrills, while the made-on-a-shoestring movie wasn’t glossy or arty enough to have up-market appeal.

Mikels took this failure as a sign that his social conscience was not going to pave the way to a successful screen career. So he turned to very different kinds of films like The Corpse Grinders and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, whose campy flamboyance eventually earned him a cult rep as a beloved psychotronic-cinema auteur. His “passing” Klansman perhaps came a little too early for popular acceptance—but one suspects Spike Lee’s is arriving right on time.

Watch NowSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and many other films by Melvin Van Peebles. On the other end of the spectrum, you know, it wouldn’t hurt our feelings if you didn’t watch the hateful, racist The Birth of a Nationbut just in case you’re in a film history class, here it is.

Want to know more? Check out our four-part series on Oakland’s film moment that examines the city and how it’s portrayed in “Black Panther,” “Blindspotting,” and “Sorry to Bother You.” And watch this space for our full review of BlacKkKlansman.
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