Hollywood has long shown discomfort with interracial couples, but change is happening
This refusal to deal with the reality of interracial love and sex is nothing new; it’s pretty much how the movies have handled these relationships down through the years. Beginning with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist depiction “The Birth of a Nation,” in which, as described by NYU film professor Sam Pollard, “the black man was this evil beast defiling white womanhood (in one scene, a white woman commits suicide rather than be ‘violated’ by a black man),” Hollywood has tiptoed around, or outright ignored, realistic depictions of interracial romance.
“During the classic Hollywood era, the industry was regulated by the Production Code, and it banned depictions of miscegenation,” says Ellen Scott, a UCLA professor and author of “Cinema Civil Rights.” Hollywood tastemakers of the era, she says, “thought these romances were disgusting and might offend audiences.”
One way the industry dealt with the issue was in a series of so-called “tragic mulatto” storylines in films such as “Show Boat” (1936), “Pinky” (1949) and “Imitation of Life” (1959), in which light-skinned blacks – always played by white actresses – cross the color line and pass as white until their “true” race is discovered and tragedy ensues. “The mulatto can pass, and infiltrate into the culture, and prove the lie in white culture because she can pass and be successful,” says Bogle. “But the mulatto is tormented and is a warning that the races shouldn’t mix.”
But if the races did mix – as in the 1957 “Band of Angels,” in which a white slave owner (Clark Gable) puts the moves on a mulatto woman (played, of course, by a white actress, Yvonne De Carlo) – it is almost always white man, black woman. Black man, white woman is the ultimate taboo.
“White men who run Hollywood make these films,” says Pollard, “and these white male, black woman relationships are easier for them to digest.”
“This goes to gender politics,” adds Bogle. “The black penis is so threatening, it calls into question white manhood and white power. And the idea that the white woman is on a pedestal and the black man will defile her, this becomes threatening.”
Which is one reason why “Loving” works so well. Coming from an area where the races seemed to mix rather easily – Richard’s father even worked for a black man, and Mildred was part Native American – the film has a real feel for its environment, and takes the Lovings’ relationship as perfectly normal.
“They came from such a unique place, I do believe they were allowed the room to fall in love,” says Nichols. “And what it says about race is this idea of love transcends racial barriers.”
Yet Bogle feels that filmmakers are still trying to come to grips with black-white romance. “Societal attitudes and opposition to interracial marriages, that’s one thing,” he says. But films still “don’t indicate that in interracial marriages there are cultural bridges people have to cross in order for the relationship to work. That’s something that can be enlightening; what we learn about one another in this kind of relationship.”
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