Fredi Washington, the mixed actress who played the role of Peola Johnson in the Imitation of Life (1934), was the first woman to portray her race in 1926 when she performed in Black Boys on Broadway. Before Fredi, these roles were always performed by white actors. Since the 1930’s and Imitation of Life [based on Fannie Hurst’s (1933) novel] – there have been a few films, like re-makes of Imitation of Life and The Human Stain (2003), featuring the subject of mixed-race “passing,” and with mixed-race actors. Passing (2021), based on Nella Larson’s 1929 novel, is one such film, and stars Ruth Negga as Clare, whose character is accepted as white. However, this film’s take on passing presents Clare as more of a minstrel-type figure or clown, and harkens to performance traditions from the pre-1940’s era of entertainment.
REVIEWS OF THE FILM
Most reviews of Passing don’t address the use of whiteface on a black-skinned actress and do not question why a white or very light-skinned female, like Rashida Jones, for example, who often looks like a white person, could not play Clare. Despite her very competent performance, Ruth Negga (who is mixed-race), is obviously wearing a costume, does not pass at all, and with the ill-fitting makeup, is made to appear strange looking. The character is also unattractive this way, but that doesn’t stop the characters in the story from constantly heralding her as a great beauty.
The whiteface effect seems more in line with a theatrical play, where melodramatic makeup and masks might be used, as opposed to what we’d see in a film. So that Passing demands the audience pretend that, not only does Clare look white but that all of the characters who know Clare are not lying to her about it or to themselves in private conversations when she’s not there.
In Whiting Up by Marvin McAllister, the author states that whiteface costume and performances, “Expand representational opportunities for artists of all colors,” which could make Passing, a statement about black-appearing actresses who can convincingly play white-appearing actresses. However, such intentions seem overbearing in regard to this movie when considering the tremendous presence of African Americans in entertainment. Right now, the market is completely saturated with targeted products like BET, Hip Hop, Soul Train, Essence Magazine, etc., and has been for a long time. Furthermore, most mainstream shows today will always include an African American actor, and also in certain period dramas – and even when it seems to corrupt the plausibility of the story. There is simply no contest in comparison with performances inclusive of passing-white actors.
If, as McAllister stated, one of the objectives of whiting up is to dominate by [‘maintaining a type of designated – debased status’ with (‘uncorrupted’ or right-whites)], it would certainly make it necessary for mixed-race persons to begin producing art in droves and to get working on that ‘narrative.’ Mixed persons must create jobs in entertainment for ethnically ambiguous artists and avoid the potentially toxic societal effects resulting from questionable characterizations.
Many people get offended about blackface even when it is something artistic and unrelated to race, or when presented along with the history or the nature of a topic. And in general, it is offensive to just about everyone who is of African American descent, including those who may pass for white, because it is disturbing and hurtful. So was anyone concerned that the effect of whiteface in Passing would be similar? On one hand, there is the consolation of knowing that the whiteface is being performed by a mixed-race person, but the effect is still somewhat troubling – and not because we are reminded of indentured servitude, but because of what the performance is trying to convey and how it could effect societal status.
“It’s an assertion of power and control,” says David Leonard , a professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies at Washington State University. “It allows a society to routinely and historically imagine African Americans as not fully human. It serves to rationalize violence and Jim Crow segregation.”
“White performers in blackface played characters that perpetuated a range of negative stereotypes about African Americans including being lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, criminal or cowardly.”
“They did it to authenticate their whiteness,” he says. “It was the same as saying ‘We can become the other and mock the other and assert our superiority by dehumanizing the other.’”
Therefore, with the exception of some performance artists or perhaps a mime, and especially when it comes to films concerning race, it seems dangerous to use blackface/whiteface to portray how someone like Sofia Richie, for example, might have lived in the 1920’s. Is it possible that the whiteface applies to something depicted in the novel? Must we read the book to understand? Perhaps Clare is a character similar to Lulu White (1868-1931), a well-known Creole madam in her time, who’s life is said to be imitated in the film Belle of the Nineties with Mae West, and also in Pretty Baby – in which a version of Lulu is portrayed by Frances Faye.
Lulu may have photographed herself with white-ish makeup and used stand-ins for certain occasions, or the other way around, because some of her photos don’t match her likeness later in life or her mug shot. However, a character like Lulu, a bordello personality, is certainly different than a woman living in normal society with a racist white husband.
In Whiting Up, the author describes the presumably familiar scenario in regard to a passing mixed-race person how – “what you see is not what you get.” And so we find that a mixed-race person may not be considered more than they appear, in some cases, due to their additional ancestry – but as an ‘imitation’ of a person or race.
Written by: Kat Sweet