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Marcia Dawkins Headshot

Passing as Mixed Race

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Alexandre Dumas has always been one of my favorite writers. Works like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and Georges took me on countless adventures in worlds and times much different from my own. But there's a kinship I've always felt with the author despite our differences in gender, nationality and history -- being of mixed race.

Dumas was the grandson of a freed Haitian slave and a French nobleman. When describing his racial profile to a man who insulted him for being different he's reported to have said, "My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends."

Though my own background is different from Dumas's, and feels even more complex, that multiracial kinship is one of the reasons why I look forward to the U.S. release of the new biopic that opened in Paris on February 10th, L'Autre Dumas, or The Other Dumas.

As with many films that deal with multiracial identity, L'Autre Dumas is not without controversy. The casting of white French megastar Gerard Depardieu as Dumas has angered France's Representative Council for Black Associations. The Representative Council is upset because this casting choice renders Dumas visible in a way that can be likened to blackface used in minstrel shows. The Council is offended because Depardieu had to darken his skin for the role and wear a wig to change the texture of his hair. The Council is also offended because this is not an isolated or national event. They cite a historical privileging of whiteness in film, as characters of mixed race have largely been played by white actors. Most recently for instance, though her performance was approved by Mariane Pearl, Angelina Jolie was criticized by some for playing the Afro Cuban/Dutch wife of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in the 2007 film "A Mighty Heart." In fairness, Jolie claims some Native American and mixed race ancestry on her mother's side.

Speaking at the Berlin Film Festival last month, Depardieu stated that the argument over the race of the actor in the film's title role is "unnecessary." For the actor and producers it's about finding the right person for the role regardless of that person's authentic racial background. But, as noted here and elsewhere, many disagree. Karen Bowdre, a film scholar from the University of Indiana, Bloomington says that the choice is part business decision. "Depardieu was probably cast because he is who he is, has a following and perhaps box office clout. The producers/directors, etc. couldn't find -- or didn't look for -- a qualified (popular, bankable) mixed race actor to play the part." Bowdre says the casting decision is also part colorblind. "On multiple levels it shows how, even in France, the industry continues to privilege whiteness while being able to think they are progressive because they chose this subject matter."

Research I conducted for my new book about mixed race representation and passing, Things Said in Passing, confirms Bowdre's point. I learned that Hollywood has a long and complex history of casting white actors in mixed race roles. To cite a few examples, Lena Horne was passed over in favor of Ava Gardner for a role as biracial singer Julie LaVerne in 1951's Show Boat and in favor of Jeanne Crain to play the protagonist in 1949's Pinky. Anthony Hopkins was recently cast as mixed race/black turned Jewish college professor in 2003's The Human Stain.

What's emerged from my research is a trend in how racial categories and appearances can limit and expand actors' opportunities and audiences' interpretations. Multiracial actors like Halle Berry are honored for their portrayals of black roles as in Monster's Ball. However, it's definitely less acceptable for them to play racially ambiguous and/or white roles, as Berry planned to do by playing Tierney Cahill in Class Act. Cahill was a white teacher from Reno, NV who accepted a challenge from her sixth grade class to run for Congress in 2000. Another emerging trend is that obvious exceptions to this rule seem to be found in Vin Diesel and Keanu Reeves. These actors seem unaffected by pressure to demand roles that proclaim a specific racial makeup.

Berry's, Diesel's and Reeves's experiences raise important questions for audiences both onscreen and off screen. Namely, should films double as racial Rorschach tests? Can white actors pass as mixed race and vice versa? In a recent blog post on the matter, Sonia Rolland, an actress who is part-Rwandan and a former Miss France, is reported to have said the following: "Dumas had quite African features. In this film, they are hiding his history, blacking him up and putting curls on a Gaulish head. In the midst of our debate on national identity, it seems that no-one is shocked apart from a few blacks and half-casts." Lindsay Dawkins, a mixed race woman from San Diego, CA says, "I don't know what to think really. This happens all the time in movies. I guess I've just been desensitized and no longer get offended."

Should we, like Lindsay, no longer be offended? Is Depardieu's latest role proof that we've truly entered a post-racial era? Does the media industry need to take responsibility for its formations of mixed race subjects, forging of interracial relations, and imagining "ambiguous" identification in today's increasingly diversifying world?

I guess we'll find out in time. Probably when we see who is cast in the inevitable Barack Obama biopic -- someone who looks like Djimon Hounsou, Will Smith, Wentworth Miller or Tom Cruise. I wonder who Alexander Dumas would choose.