John Cassavetes’ Shadows: A Snapshot of the Mixed-Race Experience

In 1957, the actor John Cassavetes decided to make Shadows, a film developed through a series of acting workshops: “We did everything wrong, technically…. The only thing we did right was to get a group of people together who were young, full of life, and wanted to do something of meaning.” In response to its poor reception, he reshot and rewrote many of the scenes, released a new edit in 1959 and withdrew the original print. Shot for $40,000 on 16mm in Cassavetes’ apartment and guerilla-style on the streets of Manhattan, with a mainly nonprofessional cast and crew and borrowed equipment, Shadows broke new ground as one of the first movies produced outside the Hollywood studio system to achieve widespread success. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther noted that while ‘unfinished’ the 1959 film is ‘fitfully dynamic, endowed with a raw but vibrant strength, conveying an illusion of being a record of real people, and… incontestably sincere’. It won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1960 and with that inspired a new generation to believe, to quote Martin Scorsese: “If he could do it, so could we!” 

Shadows traces the lives of three siblings: Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a serious black jazz musician who economically supports the family; Ben (Ben Carruthers), a mixed-race disaffected musician; and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), a confident, playful, mixed-race artist. It explores the intersectional complexities of the ideologies imposed on each, most potently through Lelia’s doubly negated experience. The movie begins in media res: the opening credits scroll over a raucous party in a cramped apartment, as the revellers initiate an impromptu jam. From the start, the film challenges segregated racial imagery, showing the creativity of its privately integrated youth. But this is a moment of innocence which ultimately proves unsustainable. Like much of Cassavetes’ work, Shadows casts a social mirror on marginalised figures to examine themes of identity, family and love. He argued that the film’s focus is its ‘human problems’, i.e. establishing a sense of selfhood, finding a purpose in life, navigating relationships.  But despite this universalist, humanist ethic, race and racism are key factors for the three designated black protagonists living in a racially divided New York.

Ray Carney observes that Shadows ‘focuses on the minority position in both the sociological and the imaginative sense of the term’ (1994: 33).  Yet it stereotypes mixed-race identity through its characterisation of the white-skinned siblings Benny and Lelia as ‘tragic mulattoes’; they are unstable, unwittingly ‘pass’ for white, are punished for their hubris and remain utterly dependent on their brother Hugh.  Carney notes that the film is an explorative comparison of the ‘‘masks’ we wear in public with the ‘faces’ we hide beneath them’ (1994: 36).  While the siblings perform other racial identities outside their home, with Hugh they reveal the true face of their confusion; it is Hugh who convinces Lelia to forget her sexual relationship with a white man and accept her blackness via a more conservative black suitor. Viewed through the lens of the ‘tragic mulatto’, she is defined by her sexuality, and her transgression is resolved through romantic reintegration into the black community.

According to American hypodescent practice, children of black-white unions were legally defined as black. Yet in Shadows, Cassavetes is alleged to have used white actors to portray Benny and Lelia. (Incidentally these actors, neither of whom would publicly disclose their racial background, were briefly married after the film’s release.) Carney[1] suggests that this casting practice makes mixed characters’ identities ‘cinematically indeterminate’ and ‘violates conventional cinematic forms of representation’ (1994: 48). While typical of Hollywood’s casting practices during this period – reducing black actors to minor roles and using white actors to play mixed or even black characters to circumvent censorship guidelines – Cassavetes’ depiction of racial ambiguity undermines legal and social categorisations. However, it is also a necessary device given that Shadows includes depictions of interracial sex which were banned by the Hays Code in line with broader conventions – the United States Supreme Court did not decriminalise interracial marriage until 1967.

The writer and political activist W.E.B Du Bois (himself a mixed-race man) observed that slavery and segregation had produced racial blindspots whereby the black community essentially lived behind a veil unnoticed by the white community. Hence black people might be read as ‘shadows’ in society, and in fact the mixed-race illegitimate offspring of married white men were known as ‘shadow families’. Like the 1922 film of the same name, Cassavetes’ title can thus be read as an explicit reference to the United States’ racial divide. It also suggests a doubling; a mimetic representation of life reinforced by the film’s docu-drama quality, Charles Mingus’ score and the code-switching characters perform to survive in a hostile environment. 

Lelia is a new protagonist for her time, a symbol of integration and feminism, equally at home in white and non-white spaces, initially at least. Independent, arrogant, funny, naïve, selfless and selfish, she refuses a homogenous conceptualisation of femininity. Likewise Hugh occupies a rare position for a film of this time, offering a portrait of a complex black male artist full of ambition. Allegedly based on Cassavetes’ experiences, Hugh’s characterisation conveys the personal impact of prioritising authenticity in an industry more focused on commercial gain than artistry, and rooted in white supremacist discourses. Ben’s character is less well developed; talented, sensitive and somewhat reckless, he struggles to find his place in society and falls victim to desperation when hit by the reality of structural racism.

Lelia has the greatest character arc of the three, climaxing in the exposition of her doubly negated position. The closing scenes show her at a dancehall on a date with a black man who keeps her locked in a tight embrace while informing her that her confidence – which he reads as a sense of superiority – is misplaced, i.e. that they are both black to the ‘white lens’ and thus equally open to discrimination.  Like the white lover who abandons her due to her race, he uses physical restraint to force her to accept her position.  The oppositional themes of this scene – romance and violence – suggest that her path to racial acceptance is also a form of punishment, necessitated by her undomesticated agency, uncontained sexuality and transgressive mixedness. Despite the film’s nuanced depiction of racialised identities, the end scene confirms the endurance of the ‘tragic mulatto’ while at the same time subversively highlighting the intersections of racialised and gendered brutality across social groups structured by the interlocking parameters of white supremacism and patriarchal capitalism.

[1] See Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and The Movies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

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