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USA 1960
Directed by
Fred M Wilcox
93 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

I Passed For White

Although it is frequently tagged as an exploitation film I Passed for White is a solidly-made B-grade with a genuine concern for the destructive consequences of racism.

Directed and adapted for the screen by Fred M. Wilcox from a novel of the same name by Reba Lee "as told to" Mary Hastings Bradley it tells the story of Bernice Lee (Sonya Wilde) a young black woman who is regularly mistaken for white because of the lightness of her skin. Bristling against the entrenched racism in her home town of Chicago (the destination of choice for many poor blacks from the decaying South) she heads to New York and adopts a new “white” persona as Lila Brownell. There she meets handsome Rick Leyton (James Franciscus),scion of a wealthy New York family. Having no idea of her background Leyton sweeps her off her feet, proposes marriage and takes her home to meet his snooty family all who share in an entrenched bigotry towards “coloured”  people.  Bernice accepts the proposal but finds herself entangled in a web of lies as she struggles to meet the social expectations of her future husband and in-laws fearing in particular when she gets pregnant that she will be exposed.

Certainly the film is programmatic and this gives the plot and dialogue a certain stilted quality but the evils of racism are brought home by Beatrice’s story. The scene in which Beatrice loses herself in the rhythms of “jazz music” while her husband and in-laws watch in horror is a particularly effective presentation of the conflict between “the raw “ and “the cooked” which lies at the film’s heart.

Wilde, making her film debut bub largely disappearing from sight thereafter is effective in  making Beatrice’s moral and emotional conflict palpable whilst Franciscus who had a long and successful career in television both before and after this, is excellent, his easy charm and good looks masking the ugliness. beneath.

FYI: Understandably given the racial tensions soon to boil over in America, a white actress was cast in the lead as the producers feared that a white audience would not want to see a real inter-racial relationship between two actors, let alone one which showed them kissing on screen. Laws forbidding miscegenation which still applied in many states when the film was made only declared unconstitutional in in 1967 in the bench-mark  case of Loving v. Virginia (examined in The Loving Story. 2011).




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