The Post-War Passing Film: Lost Boundaries

Lost Boundaries (Werker, 1949) is an exception in the post-war melodrama as it chooses not to focus on the female or the individual, but on the attempts of an entire mixed-race family to ‘pass’. Based on a true story and adapted from William L. White’s 1948 novel, its protagonist is Dr Scott Carter (Mel Ferrer). Given that he is white-skinned, Scott cannot find work in a black hospital. So, with his wife Marcia (Beatrice Pearson) – who incidentally grew up ‘passing’ – he ‘passes’ for white to find work (with the support of his black friends). As they await the birth of their first child, they settle in as part of the white affluent community of a small town in New England.

What was supposed to be a temporary pretense becomes a life-changing decision. They have their baby at home in case he is black. Their children Howie (Richard Hylton) and Shelly (Susan Douglas Rubes) grow up without any understanding of their mixedness. Once a week, in the mode of a border crosser or ‘trespasser’, as Ginsberg put it, Scott relaxes back into his mixed-race identity at the black clinic he has founded in Boston. Moving between his white and black professional practices, he inhabits a protean identity. When the family’s ethnicity is finally revealed to the (now adult) children and publicised in their community, the potential for a Bhabhaian ‘Third Space’ is destroyed and they are forced to deal with racial injustice and the consequences of their transgression.

Like Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin, 1995), the film provides a political critique of racial dynamics in post-war American society. The Carters are the invisible mixed/black family made visible, wealthy and professional. They are not the aliens next door but those at the heart of the white community. While their ‘lost boundaries’ might seem fairly innocuous, they are contextualised as criminal; violating the social and medicinal segregation of bodies and blood. Yet by portraying the mixed family as white-skinned middle-class Americans, the film also undermines the science that affirmed essentialist differences between the ‘races’. Gina Marchetti observes that the destabilisation of racial categories in this and other post-war mixed films conveyed to audiences that ‘racial differences are not ‘natural’ but culturally constructed and subject to historical change’ (1993: 176).

Lost Boundaries, like Pinky (Kazan, 1949), emphasises the idea that the mixed protagonists’ real home lies in the black community. Both films also focus on black opportunities in the medical profession, perhaps reflecting the need for (physical/psychological) healing in post-war America. And both emphasise the ‘in-between isolation of the Negro who tries to ‘pass’ as white’ (Besley Crowther, New York Times, 1949).

As Donald Bogle notes, by using white actors and ‘tragic mulatto’ themes, Lost Boundaries ‘like most Hollywood productions, had created a dream situation, an isolated fantasy no more real than those of the all-black musicals’ (1974: 211). The film’s aesthetic tendencies towards realism highlight the implausibility of its dream-like scenarios, particularly when in its closing scenes, the white locals abandon their racist ideology and accept the Carters as equal social members.

Lost Boundaries could be read as reinforcing the ‘noble Negro’ concept; encouraging white audiences to identify only with those who are part of the black élite, whose difference is neutralised by their professional, financial and in this case ‘off-white’ status. Ultimately the narrative conclusion denies structural racism and its impact, thus undermining the film’s ability to raise awareness of real social problems and inequities.

Harryette Mullen (1994: 92) argues that the ‘mechanism of passing’ can be seen as a further marginalisation of blackness, an ongoing operation which produces whiteness. As ‘passing’ requires a denial of black identity, the ‘passer’ and their children eventually become ideologically ‘white’. As Western national élites remain mostly white, the act of ‘passing’ into a white identity becomes a contribution to nation-building and delivers access to a national identity. The white identity is thus strengthened as a political power and the black identity is subjugated and excluded. Lost Boundaries operates within this binary and therefore privileges the family’s whiteness at the expense of their blackness.

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