Lost Boundaries: Race Problems Films in 1949 and their Significance in 2009

I wanted to share a few quotes from a work that is somewhat of a blast from my Academic past. I began working on this draft in 2002 and finished it by 2003 for a “Historical methods” course in undergrad. I was limited to a subject dealing with American history and had to locate a topic that would wield sources easily accessible to an undergrad with no archival experience. I wanted to choose a topic that related to my experience. At first, I wanted to write a paper about political leanings of the Black American Muslim community through the WD Muhammad community and compare that to the political leanings of immigrant led organizations such as ISNA. My Muslim peers were against that idea. So, I decided to work on a paper that didn’t explore the fractures and fragmentation of the American Muslim community. Instead, I chose a topic that dealt with race in America. Like most Black families, we have our family histories peppered with stories of interracial marriages between Black and Native American, accounts of children born from sexual unions between White men and Black women, and tales of this branch of the family or other passing for white. I grew up in a household full of racially ambiguous Black women, which contrasted with my experience as a phenotypically Black woman. In a way of connecting to my sister and niece, I began exploring issues of Black identities, multi-racial identity, white privilege, colorism, and class. For my research project I was initially interested in the history of Free Black communities in New Orleans. But after consultation I decided to explore similar themes through media representations of mixed race Black Americans. I looked at all the films dealing with Black American life and found a disproportionate amount of films dealing with racial passing and very few of the stories were written by Black Americans who appeared to be phenotypically white. I explored this theme in Black films and literature and soon learned that the race passing trope had little to do with the experience of mixed race individuals, but more to do with the discourse on racial place in America. Two films stood out to me because they represented a pivotal time in American race relations following World War II as America tried to normalize and reset race relations.

In light of the discourse on post racial America, Barack Obama, and the Tiger Woods situation, I think it is appropriate to revisit these issues. In 2010, there is less of a need to pass by hiding one’s African heritage. Rather, people are politely passing by checking out of Blackness. James Weldon Johnson’s main character in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man takes this position when he declares that he “would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race.” Many multi-racial people resent the Black community’s opinion of those who check “other” and do not identify as Black. I understand their sentiment, but I think that the ways in which both mainstream America and multi-racial individuals talk about Black America’s ambivalence towards this phenomena tends to be over-simplified. While I am not an expert on racial formations in America, I do think advocates of both the post-racial society and the the multiracial movement both depict Black identities in a ahistorical way. There is still more dialog that needs to occur, as Black identity in the 21st identity is shifting where individuals can have the choice to opt in or out. Now, one can have one drop and still live a relatively white life. There are countless individuals who do it. But back in 1949, that Black drop could be devastating as evidenced by this 1949 film which was based on a true story.

This short film clip is packed with problematic scenes. The one I found most disturbing was the nightmare sequence where Black faces are transposed onto white faces.

Here’s a snippet of the paper:

The Social Significance of Racial Ambiguity in two 1949 Negro Problem films, Pinky and Lost Boundaries
Margari Hill

“Most anthropologists agree there will be no Negro problem in another two hundred years; by then there will not be enough recognizable Negroes left in this country to constitute a problem.”
Ralph Linton, Anthropologist, 1947

A 1950s scientific study titled “Complete White-Negro Mixing in 1,000 Years,” determined that that 3.6% of genes in the African American gene pool, “are freshly introduced from the North American white population per generation.” Ralph Linton saw this trend as the resolution to racial tensions in America. Once African Americans were physically and culturally indistinguishable from whites, Linton concluded, it would be impossible to discriminate against them. The Mississippi Democratic Senator, Theodore Bilbo, wrote back to Linton saying he’d rather a hydrogen bomb drop on America than see the mongrelization of the races. Linton, assured Bilbo and his readers that race mixing goes only one way—to lighten Negroes.
Regardless of their outward appearance, social institutions and many laws restricted individuals classified as Negro in a system that privileged Whites over Blacks. Race passing was a way that few Negroes escaped discriminating laws. In a society preoccupied with racial identity and classification, racially ambiguous individuals were a special problem.

Race passing challenged accepted norms and was so shocking and controversial that its sensationalism drew movie audiences. In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, the leading authority on African Americans in motion pictures, Donald Bogle, lists the pantheon of iconic figures. Bogle writes that the, “moviemaker’s darling is the tragic mulatto.” The following films have explored this theme: God’s Step Children (1937) Imitation of Life (1934) and (1958), Showboat (1936) and (1951), Lost Boundaries (1949), Pinky (1949), Band of Angels (1957), Night of the Quartermoon (1959), Shadows (1960), I Passed for White (1960), King’s Go Forth (1958), Queen (1993), Devil and a Blue Dress (1995), and Feast of All Saints (2001). As evidenced through the changes in the depiction of race passing, these stories reflect America’s changing race relations.

In 1949, the release of three racial problem films broke new ground in the depiction of African Americans. Two of the films exploited the racial passing plotline and were starred in, written, and produced by Whites. Because of various compromises to the storylines, these films were less about the African American experience than White privilege. An examination of the mainstream press’s treatment of Pinky and Lost Boundaries in comparison with African American press reveals that these movies were more of a discourse on White privilege than racial injustice.

If you’d like a copy of the paper, you can email me.

One thought on “Lost Boundaries: Race Problems Films in 1949 and their Significance in 2009

  1. I never heard of the film “Lost Boundaries” The snippet included in this blog is quite a gutsy, well scripted and played, big of 40’s film-making. Now I’ve got to see the entire movie.


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