Passing as Mixed Race

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...full text also found on The Huffington Post and OpenSalon.Com

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. So, can Depardieu pass as Dumas?

What’s emerged from my research is a partial answer to this question. I've uncovered 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 another blog post on the matter, Carlton Jordan quotes Sonia Rolland, an actress who is part-Rwandan and a former Miss France. "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 Dumas would choose.


The real issue

1) The people complaining about Depardieu playing Dumas are devotees of hypodescent, the idea that people of mixed ancestry should only identify with the ancestral group that is the most socially inferior. Who SHOULD play Dumas? He was 3/4 white, not 3/4 black. The fact that the people advocating this idea claim to be "of color" (a stupid term about as valid as "non-Aryan") and whine about supposed "racism" whenever they're displeased confuses people of good will. What they are advocating is really a "liberal" form of the racist idea of "white purity," in which the old idea of biological superiority (white genetically superior to black) is replaced with the equally invalid idea of moral inferiority (white morally inferior to black and other nonwhite identities). The result, of course, is a deliberate attempt to maintain racial definitions and divisions that should and would be dying if many black-identified folks didn't fight like hell to keep them alive and use their inflated moral authority (white guilt) to silence dissenters.

2) Ask yourself what Jews would say if someone suggested that only actors of "Jewish blood" should play Jewish or part-Jewish characters? They wouldn't tolerate it. They are not that stupid. If they were stupid, they would try to retain the old "Aryan/Non-Aryan" division of Europe and try to put a "positive" spin on it ("Non-Aryan pride," maybe?). They know that such a rule (even if legally unenforceable but morally intimidating) would send a negative messages that 1) Something is wrong with "Jewish genes" and 2) If non-Jews are not eligible for Jewish roles, perhaps the opposite is or should also be true.

3) The job of an actor is, by definition, to pretend to be someone he is not. Anthony Quinn was mostly Mexican with an Irish grandfather, but he played Greeks, Russians, Italians, Eskimos and numerous other ethnicities. Anthony Hopkins, a Welshman, has played Spaniards, medieval Anglo-Saxons, former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and John Quincy Adams, a psychotic serial killer and numerous other roles that have nothing to do with his personal lineage. His competence to play all these roles has not been questioned except in the case of his role in "The Human Stain" in which blacks and some of their liberal allies denounced him as a "white" playing a "black" role even though the character in question was predominately white and identified as such.
--AD Powell

Am I passing as mixed race?

I learned that my paternal grandmother was African American, following dead ends and census records and discovering that branch of the family tree had had a long history of "passing" as white in the South, where the one-drop rule applied. It may have been prudent, given the nightriders and the terrorism. Now, at 57, I'm somewhat startled to discover my African American heritage but would like to embrace it without seeming like, you know, "me too." I have at least stopped ironing my hair, letting it do what it wants to do, I will share my genetic heritage with healthcare providers who might need the info, and I'm going to get involved with the Mixed Heritage Center despite the fact that most members have probably always known their history instead of learning only in late middle age.

~Flute Fan

This is very interesting.

This is very interesting. I want to see "The Other Dumas" is surely on my to-see movie list. Also, movies do have the tendency to create dialogue, so I am thinking that it would be great to see how filmmakers negotiate mixed-race representation.

Defining multi-racial ?

I can definitely understand the frustration behind this recent casting of Gerard Depardieu. As the author mentioned in this article, this likens to when white actors performed in blackface, or when movie producers selected white actors to portray multiracial or "ethnic" roles.

However it is important to note the distinction of Gerard Depardieu and the blackface comparison and that is intent. Blackface, a popular style in minstrel shows and vaudeville, was directly intended to make fun and to mock an entire race of people- definitely to kick someone while they were already down. However, Depardieu's portrayal of Dumas is based on honoring a man's legacy and story and is being done out of respect.

In many ways this reminds me of when the biopic Selena was made. Selena was a Mexican American singer who was tragically murdered at the height of her career. Years later they decided to do movie and decided to cast then up and comer Jennifer Lopez. Her casting caused many Mexican Americans to be upset since Jennifer Lopez was (is) of Puerto Rican descent and not Mexican. I personally think that that argument was little ridiculous, I mean isn't it important that Selena's story was told and that they at least selected a hispanic actress ? However, on the other hand, why did Madonna wind up playing Evita Peron ? I mean, at least get a brown eyed girl so that she doesn't have to wear brown colored contacts !

And look at Elvis. Elvis wasn't a hit because he could sing- he was a hit with all the record execs because he could sing like a black man without looking like one.

It all goes back to our perceptions and our expectations of how we perceive how others look and act and how we THINK they SHOULD look and act.

def not post-racial

The day a black actor is cast as a white historical figure and we are told that it's because he or she is the best person for the job, I will believe that we are in a post-racial era.

I have mixed feelings about the whole subject. Although I *do* understand the whole "best person" argument, I really would like the actor to at least bear some resemblance to the historical figure, especially if the person's appearance is very well known. The actor who played Henry VIII in the Showtime series The Tudors not only bore no resemblance to the actual Henry (although the young Henry wasn't fat, he was a big man, and a redhead), but I don't even think he was good enough to justify his choice.


Dumas and Depardieu

I am not surprised that Depardieu was cast as the role of Dumas. Although disappointing…what does surprise me is Depardieu’s cavaliar attitude regarding it. It seems to me that historical accuracy is a privilege that only some have. If a bio-epic was made of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and cast with a latino or black actor with makeup effects to imbue correct historical accuracy…there would be outrage…the movie wouldn’t be made. I wish that the film makers of this movie would have had the balls to create a movie with an understanding of the mis-representation and lack of visibility of multiracial people.



only time will tell

I think the only mainstream production I have seen in my lifetime (I'm 50) that was cast Truly without regard to color was a production (I think it was for TV) of Cinderella, starring Brandy. Her Prince was mixed Asian. The Queen was Whoopi Goldberg, I forget who was the King - but he was white. Brandy's evil step-folks were randomly white and black. Whitney Houston was the Fairy Godmother, and most of the supporting and background actors were of all races without regard to "racial pairing."

I recall a LOT of flack on this production for being "utterly unrealistic" and "controversial." An established "fairy tale" called Cinderella? "Unrealistic?" REALLY? America's "vision" was not ready for such a sight. Never saw it tried again.

But then again, Lawrence Fishburne got flack for Actually being a black man cast as Othello. LOL!

Give it time, folks. TIME. Some generations have to "go" first, but "all in good time."

Depardieu is right

In this case I agree with Depardieu and I'm a huge Dumas fan. Dumas was a larger than life person and Depardieu is that rare someone who can pull that off. It's not his job to right all the possible wrongs of film history. It's his - and the filmmaker's - job to portray the spirit of the one he represents. Depardieu has a history of portraying historical characters with outstanding success. I look forward to this.

Harry's Ghost

depardieu is wrong

@Harry's Ghost If Depardieu was playing a fictional character than I would not care but since he is playing a historical figure than they "movie industry" should be accurate. Also, I doubt that if a French producer found an African actress to Play Marie-Antoinette that the French would not protest.

It's unacceptable.

Dumas was the son of a

Dumas was the son of a general in Napoleon's army, the grandson of a marquis, even if his family ended up in poverty, he was born and raised in the French elite, which also gave him the opportunity to access to the French elite. To focus on his mixed ancestory would be to focus on the part of his ancestory which meant the least to him or his life.

Beside do this guy:
...look like a African?

19th century France isn't USA, you could have open African ancestory and physical traits and still belong to the elite.

i agree

I would also object to Depardieu playing the part of Dumas. While his name is fun to say aloud, I think it's silly for a European Caucasian playing the role of someone of mixed heritage. That would be like Anthony Quinn (who is of mixed heritage, Mexican and Irish I believe) playing the role of a Greek, or Eli Wallach playing Tuco Ramirez in Sergio Leone's "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" or all the white people who played the role of Native Americans in 1950's America cinema.

Are there no actors of mixed heritage that can play this role?

But! Did anyone object when Denzel Washington played the role of Don Pedro, the Sicilian prince of Aragon, in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing"...I bet not enough people saw that film to care.

Norman Thomas Cooper

Dumas, mixed race?

I, too, did not realize Dumas was of mixed race, though I recall seeing a drawing of him long ago and I can see it now. Thanks for the education.

I understand your point, but I wonder how many French actors of mixed race have the gravitas to pull off Dumas. I'm not at all certain Depardieu can carry it off.

It's a sticky wicket, and in most cases, I completely concur with your stance. For example, I simply cannot see Tom Cruise playing President Obama. (Though he tore it up as a meganasty producer in Tropic Thunder, which was quite outside his normal oeuvre. And I know, I Know, that movie features the extremely offensive/extremely funny Downey Jr.'s performance)

In sum, I recognize and appreciate the information you bring to us here. thank you!


what's personally sad...

What's personally sad, for me, is that it took me 38 years and this post to find out that Alexandre Dumas was mixed race.

--Chiller Pop

how far back do we need to go for mixed race

This matter of designating who is what and to what extent they are that is an argument that collapses rather quickly upon itself.

How far back must the mixing be before the designation *mixed race* no longer applies?

Barack Obama is mixed race, but identifies as Black, as African American. Halle Barry identifies as African American. I think so does Alicia Keys. Tiger Woods is mixed race, but Black is the last thing in the world he wants to be associated with him (or so it seems). These are personal choices.

Should the actor who plays Barack Obama in a filmed biography be primarily someone who looks mixed race and identifies as mixed race; or someone who identifies as Black, regardless of what he looks like? What truth are we after here and why?

For the first 400 or so years of race in America, it was the white man who classified people; a concept that in itself is repugnant. Black people began to empower ourselves and decide our own identifies and classification. Now, mixed race people are awakening to the same need. I get that.

The most important question we can ever ask of ourselves in whatever matter is why? In many respects, the answer to that question shapes our identities and our destinies far more than the repugnant concept of race does.

We are not post-racial in America, but I do hope we are getting past the point where shaping our identities around race matters too much.


Getting past where race matters

I agree with a lot of what you said GwenElle. My nephews are part Hispanic and Black and on my visit to their home during the holidays the 16 year old filled out an application at the local grocery store. When he returned I asked "how did it go?" He said everything went fine but he was puzzled as to why he had to choose what race he was on the application. I surely thought by now his parents had this conversation with him. His choices were to check the mixed race box, Hispanic or Black box. I asked him if he had chosen and he said he left it empty. He looked kind of sad by the eyes and asked me why did he have to choose? Sadly I had no real explanation that would satisfy him because he made a very valid point. Why does a person have to choose? He kept pondering the questions "will I get the job if I am black or will I get the job if I am Hispanic?" Are my chances better if I choose mixed race? It saddens me to think that we still have not come far enough where race doesn't matter. Really though, why do we have to choose a race when we are made up of many different races. What a great way to confuse a 16 year old who is applying for his first job in America.

--Seely Horton

Thanks for writing this

Thanks for writing this.

As a writer/filmmaker I have strong feelings about this subject.

Obviously decisions about lead roles are primarily based on box office draw. But the larger issue is why there are so few "other than white" actors who have box office draw.

I blame the fact that there is a dearth of black, Latino, Asian and mixed race decision makers in entertainment. And the few that exist seem to love to cast blacks and Latinos and Asians in stereotypical roles. They're "black" movies in which the characters couldn't be anything except black.

In my writing and producing I try very hard to cast non white actors in roles that could be any race - especially if it's a challenging role. It can't always be done but it could be done more often. But sadly, it's not. So we never reach a place where the plethora of non-white actors (and there are many many talented ones out there) establish enough visibility and popularity to be a box office draw.

The solution, I think, is not in Hollywood, sadly. They will continue to go with what is culturally "expected". I think independent filmmakers and some minority of filmmakers in Hollywood (perhaps) will need to take the chance on casting "other than white" actors in roles that could very easily be a white actor.


honoring Dumas as mixed race

As the mother of a "mixed race" actor, I submit my son for playing Obama. So far he has been cast as Mexican, Iraqi, and East Indian. He is none of those. I am white/husband black. With the fewness of main character roles for people of color, when portraying an actual person of color, that should be honored.


who's making the film?

Kanye West once said "If it wasn't for inter-racial relationships, we wouldn't have any girls for the videos." The only color Hollywood cares about is green. If that Dumas movie was being made here, they probably would make an effort to find a biracial or light-skinned actor to play the part. I guess it depends on who is making the movie. Bigger budget, more authenticity hopefully.


Cool post

Cool! I didn't know that Alexandre Dumas was of mixed racial heritage. So apparently was Abraham Lincoln. Google "Lincoln+Melungeon" and see what you come up with about his grandmother, I think it was.

"Race" is a false concept. "Races" are simply families, grown up. What we call "racial" traits are simply family traits extended more widely.


ethnicity matters

Excellent smart commentary. We need critics like you to re-sensitize ourselves to the subtle politics of our media and cultural environment. Issues like casting and race/ethnicity seem like no big deal...but when we look a little closer it is a huge reflection on how we have progressed (or regressed) in relation to what is palatable/acceptable to the general public.

Thanks for reminding us that it matters.



I keep seeing this phrase "post-racial". I wonder what it means...and if someone who was full grown when the word "multi-cultural" was being bandied about could possibly explain it to me.

Facetiousness aside, the question remains, what exactly does it mean? What behavior is defined as "post-racial'? What legalization is considered "post-racial"? In other words, what is the material basis for such a concept? Take away all the bells and whistles (first black president, first this, first that) and there really isn't such a thing as "post-racial". It's simply another way of not talking about race in a real way; which makes sense in a way because there's no real way to talk about race. It's an invented concept which has been made into an institution over several hundred years.

What we really mean when we say talk about race is western europe's and america's enslavement of african people, the impact of that enslavement on the development of african people worldwide. And that happens to be very hard to talk about because it would, inevitably, lead to questions about entitlement vs poverty, reparations vs welfare, feminism vs womanism and all whole host of other opposing dynamics.

If Dumas is ever to be allowed to be who he is...without blackface makeup, we had better start having those particular dynamic conversations.

--Tichaona Chinyelu

this is a disturbing trend

interesting info on Halle Berry project.. Didn't the same thing happen in the movie Imitation of Life?

-Carlton Jordan

....they're doing the same

....they're doing the same thing with "The Last Airbender" that's due out later this year...i plan on not wasting my money to support 'whitewashed' films...


who can play the role?

I don't know if there were any bi-racial choices to play Dumas, but if the person was white or black, the race would still be wrong. If Obama was to played in a movie, using Denzel or Tom Cruise would be wrong according to this argument.


power of images

Let's face it. Films are powerful teaching tools. Rather than making PC excuses to support castes in casting, we should be talking about how these images are teaching us to look at race. If phenotype doesn't matter than why couldn't Dumas be played by a multiracial, Asian or black actor? What you've pointed to is an insulting double standard that we need to eradicate. Maybe the solution is more diversity behind the camera.


power and access

I was going to take a lot more words to say what others have: I guess the time to stop being offended is when as many non-white actors play colorblind roles as white actors. That's when we will actually see an increase in actors of other races and ethnicities.

The problem is not who can play what, it's who may play what. It's again, like most racial social questions, about the power and the access.

this same issue applies to women of all races and ethnicities

A recent study shows that more diversity is needed behind the scenes for women as well as all people of color.