283: Gotto’s Passing and Posing

Archival Spaces 283

Lisa Gotto: Passing and Posing Between Black and White

Uploaded 26 November 2021

Symbol of the Unconquered (1920, Oscar Micheaux)

Lisa Gotto, a professor of film theory at the University of Vienna, originally published her book, Passing and Posing. Between Black and White. Calibrating the Color Line in U.S. Cinema (Bielefeld: transcript verlag, 2021) in German in 2006 as Traum und Trauma in Schwarz-Weiß. Ethnische Grenzgänge im amerikanischen Film, the German title playing on the German words for dream and trauma. The book was her Ph.D. dissertation in which she analyses the racial content of six films from three different periods in American film history, arguing that historically determined film aesthetics impact the formulation of racism/anti-racism in each film. Thus, while The Birth of a Nation (1915, D.W. Griffith) and Symbol of the Unconquered (1920, Oscar Micheaux) articulate polar opposing attitudes towards race, both narratives are structured according to the conventions of classical silent film. Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) and Shadows (1959, John Cassavettes) acknowledge their own artifice, constructing narrative self-reflexivity. Finally, with Bamboozled (2000, Spike Lee) and The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003), both produced after the death of 35mm cinema and the proliferation of multiple media platforms, the epistemological, semantic, and technical presuppositions of these works are queried.    

In D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist narrative, Gotto defines white-nationalist ideological coordinates according to a strict color line between black and white, wherein the segregationist director’s venomous barbs are reserved for those persons who cross that line. The so-called mixed-race mulattoes defile the supposed purity of white blood and thereby muddle the film’s strict racial hierarchies, which simultaneously define stable class and economic relationships. Oscar Micheaux, on the other hand, constructs a racial binary between black and white from a distinctly opposite perspective, wherein the act of “passing” as an economic survival strategy in America’s viciously racist society is interpreted as a betrayal of Blackness, because passing’s temporal ambivalence is “constantly bound to the horror of concealing, denying, and white-washing.” (p. 56.)

Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk)

In the German émigré director Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, whiteness is seen to be an ideological construct and a social formation, allowing the light-skinned daughter of a black maid to pass, but also consistently connecting Sara Jane’s whiteness to her African-American mother, thereby contextualizing her wish for social mobility as a denial of her family relations and rendering her emotionally torn; the inherent contradictions of the narrative thus constantly call attention to themselves, radical ambiguity becoming a stylistic device to avoid the hardest questions of race.  Cassavettes’ independent, low-budget feature, Shadows, also fosters an extreme form of ambiguity that frustrates any unified legibility, its mixed-race characters confronting their racial identity only as a background theme when confronted with racist sentiments. Skin color vacillates with the light and camera exposure, but also defines racial identity, self, and the other, allowing actors to experiment with multiple identities.

Bamboozled (2000, Spike Lee)

Spike Lee’s instrumentalization of black face in Bamboozled, in order to make manifest racist presuppositions of white America – even when confronted with a diversity and black and brown people – is primarily a critique of American cinema, but also of an audience that fails to see the bitterness behind the mask. Black face is connected to death and lynching, but also to the unreality of an entertainment reduced to smiling black mouths, eyes, and feet that eliminate any perception of humanness. In Benton’s The Human Stain, a “Jewish” (actually African-American) art history professor whose whiteness (and ability to pass) is reflected in the whiteness of the Greek statutes he studies, cannot escape his racial origins, “the ego remains constantly subjected to its racist definition.” (p. 218). Ironically, he is fired for making racist comments, but the ultimate and regrettably unmentioned irony of this film is that a white actor, Anthony Hopkins, plays an African-American passing as white, thereby metaphorically in black face.    

Lisa Gotto

Lisa Gotto’s concluding remark for The Human Stain may hold true for all race relations in a society that has not freed itself of racism, even when obvious color lines have been legally eliminated and racially ambiguity is celebrated: “The ambition of self-discovery cannot be thought beyond racist regulation because within racist society the social being perpetually remains subject to a racial typecasting.” (p. 230).  This is an important book and should be read, but I admit to feeling a certain discomfort in the fact only two of the six directors discussed here are African-American, possibly skewing the validity of any of its conclusions.

Shadows (1959, John Cassavettes)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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