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Marcia Dawkins

Marcia Dawkins
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Los Angeles, California, USA
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December 31
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Award-winning writer and educator interested in how people figure out who they are. She shares what she's found--and her fresh perspectives on media, identity, religion, rhetoric and politics--through a variety of creative outlets. She resides on the web at www.marciadawkins.com

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Editor’s Pick
MARCH 3, 2010 3:15PM

Passing as Mixed Race

Rate: 17 Flag
Alexandre Dumas has always been one of my favorite writers. Works like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and Georges took me on countless adventures in worlds and times much different from my own. But there’s a kinship I’ve always felt with the author despite our differences in gender, nationality and history—being of mixed race. Dumas was the grandson of a freed Haitian slave and a French nobleman. When describing his racial profile to a man who insulted him for being different he’s reported to have said, “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends." Though my own background is different from Dumas’s, and feels even more complex, that multiracial kinship is one of the reasons why I look forward to the U.S. release of the new biopic that opened in Paris on February 10th, L’Autre Dumas, or The Other Dumas.

As with many films that deal with multiracial identity, L’Autre Dumas is not without controversy. The casting of white French megastar Gerard Depardieu as Dumas has angered France's Representative Council for Black Associations. The Representative Council is upset because this casting choice renders Dumas visible in a way that can be likened to blackface used in minstrel shows. The Council is offended because Depardieu had to darken his skin for the role and wear a wig to change the texture of his hair. The Council is also offended because this is not an isolated or national event. They cite a historical privileging of whiteness in film, as characters of mixed race have largely been played by white actors. Most recently for instance, though her performance was approved by Mariane Pearl, Angelina Jolie was criticized by some for playing the Afro Cuban/Dutch wife of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in the 2007 film “A Mighty Heart.” In fairness, Jolie claims some Native American and mixed race ancestry on her mother’s side.

Speaking at the Berlin Film Festival last month, Depardieu stated that the argument over the race of the actor in the film's title role is "unnecessary." For the actor and producers it’s about finding the right person for the role regardless of that person’s authentic racial background. But, as noted here and elsewhere, many disagree. Karen Bowdre, a film scholar from the University of Indiana, Bloomington says that the choice is part business decision. “Depardieu was probably cast because he is who he is, has a following and perhaps box office clout. The producers/directors, etc. couldn't find—or didn’t look for—a qualified (popular, bankable) mixed race actor to play the part.” Bowdre says the casting decision is also part colorblind. “On multiple levels it shows how, even in France, the industry continues to privilege whiteness while being able to think they are progressive because they chose this subject matter.”

Research I conducted for my new book about mixed race representation and passing, Things Said in Passing, confirms Bowdre’s point. I learned that Hollywood has a long and complex history of casting white actors in mixed race roles. To cite a few examples, Lena Horne was passed over in favor of Ava Gardner for a role as biracial singer Julie LaVerne in 1951’s Show Boat and in favor of Jeanne Crain to play the protagonist in 1949’s Pinky. Anthony Hopkins was recently cast as mixed race/black turned Jewish college professor in 2003’s The Human Stain.

What’s emerged from my research is a trend in how racial categories and appearances can limit and expand actors’ opportunities and audiences’ interpretations. Multiracial actors like Halle Berry are honored for their portrayals of black roles as in Monster’s Ball. However, it's definitely less acceptable for them to play racially ambiguous and/or white roles, as Berry planned to do by playing Tierney Cahill in Class Act. Cahill was a white teacher from Reno, NV who accepted a challenge from her sixth grade class to run for Congress in 2000. Another emerging trend is that obvious exceptions to this rule seem to be found in Vin Diesel and Keanu Reeves. These actors seem unaffected by pressure to demand roles that proclaim a specific racial makeup.

Berry’s, Diesel’s and Reeves’s experiences raise important questions for audiences both onscreen and off screen. Namely, should films double as racial Rorschach tests? Can white actors pass as mixed race and vice versa? In another blog post on the matter, Carlton Jordan quotes Sonia Rolland, an actress who is part-Rwandan and a former Miss France. "Dumas had quite African features. In this film, they are hiding his history, blacking him up and putting curls on a Gaulish head. In the midst of our debate on national identity, it seems that no-one is shocked apart from a few blacks and half-casts." Lindsay Dawkins, a mixed race woman from San Diego, CA says, “I don’t know what to think really. This happens all the time in movies. I guess I’ve just been desensitized and no longer get offended.”

Should we, like Lindsay, no longer be offended? Is Depardieu’s latest role proof that we’ve truly entered a post-racial era? Does the media industry need to take responsibility for its formations of mixed race subjects, forging of interracial relations, and imagining "ambiguous" identification in today’s increasingly diversifying world?

I guess we’ll find out in time. Probably when we see who is cast in the inevitable Barack Obama biopic—someone who looks like Djimon Hounsou, Will Smith, Wentworth Miller or Tom Cruise. I wonder who Dumas would choose.

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Cool! I didn't know that Alexandre Dumas was of mixed racial heritage. So apparently was Abraham Lincoln. Google "Lincoln+Melungeon" and see what you come up with about his grandmother, I think it was.

"Race" is a false concept. "Races" are simply families, grown up. What we call "racial" traits are simply family traits extended more widely.
As the mother of a "mixed race" actor, I submit my son for playing Obama. So far he has been cast as Mexican, Iraqi, and East Indian. He is none of those. I am white/husband black. With the fewness of main character roles for people of color, when portraying an actual person of color, that should be honored.
Thanks for writing this.

As a writer/filmmaker I have strong feelings about this subject.

Obviously decisions about lead roles are primarily based on box office draw. But the larger issue is why there are so few "other than white" actors who have box office draw.

I blame the fact that there is a dearth of black, Latino, Asian and mixed race decision makers in entertainment. And the few that exist seem to love to cast blacks and Latinos and Asians in stereotypical roles. They're "black" movies in which the characters couldn't be anything except black.

In my writing and producing I try very hard to cast non white actors in roles that could be any race - especially if it's a challenging role. It can't always be done but it could be done more often. But sadly, it's not. So we never reach a place where the plethora of non
oops. Must have pushed the wrong button. BLASTED IPHONE!

...we never reach the point at which the plethora of non-white actors (and there are many many talented ones out there) establish enough visibility and popularity to be a box office draw.

The solution, I think, is not in Hollywood, sadly. They will continue to go with what is culturally "expected". I think independent filmmakers and some minority of filmmakers in Hollywood (perhaps) will need to take the chance on casting "other than white" actors in roles that could very easily be a white actor.

Rated.
What's personally sad, for me, is that it took me 38 years and this post to find out that Alexandre Dumas was mixed race.
I, too, did not realize Dumas was of mixed race, though I recall seeing a drawing of him long ago and I can see it now. Thanks for the education.

I understand your point, but I wonder how many French actors of mixed race have the gravitas to pull off Dumas. I'm not at all certain Depardieu can carry it off.

It's a sticky wicket, and in most cases, I completely concur with your stance. For example, I simply cannot see Tom Cruise playing President Obama. (Though he tore it up as a meganasty producer in Tropic Thunder, which was quite outside his normal oeuvre. And I know, I Know, that movie features the extremely offensive/extremely funny Downey Jr.'s performance)

In sum, I recognize and appreciate the information you bring to us here. thank you!
In this case I agree with Depardieu and I'm a huge Dumas fan. Dumas was a larger than life person and Depardieu is that rare someone who can pull that off. It's not his job to right all the possible wrongs of film history. It's his - and the filmmaker's - job to portray the spirit of the one he represents. Depardieu has a history of portraying historical characters with outstanding success. I look forward to this.
I am so tired of folks broadcasting they are multiracial..I guess the one drop rule no longer applys..I am so tired toof the pc rant about race not being a real construct..

When did contempt for negroes and coloreds with dark skinn and negro dialects leave the stage??

On the issue at hand Dumas was a Black man under the old rules and in the post racial era..GD is out of order making black face fashionable again...
I would also object to Depardieu playing the part of Dumas. While his name is fun to say aloud, I think it's silly for a European Caucasian playing the role of someone of mixed heritage. That would be like Anthony Quinn (who is of mixed heritage, Mexican and Irish I believe) playing the role of a Greek, or Eli Wallach playing Tuco Ramirez in Sergio Leone's "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" or all the white people who played the role of Native Americans in 1950's America cinema.

Are there no actors of mixed heritage that can play this role?

But! Did anyone object when Denzel Washington played the role of Don Pedro, the Sicilian prince of Aragon, in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing"...I bet not enough people saw that film to care.
I understand your point especially when one views through a lens of Hollywood history with Ava Gardner, Jeanne Crain and Susan Kohner all playing "tragic mulattos". But your argument falls apart. Actors often play people outside their ethnicity. Where would you draw the line? Should Morgan Freeman NOT play Nelson Mandella? Wouldn't there have been a South African actor available? Does this mean mixed race actors like Jennifer Beals or Maya Rudolf who can physically "pass" as many different ethnic types can only play what they are? If the line gets drawn with the actors need to physically alter his/her appearance, it's still tricky especially in biopics -- think Nicole Kidman's nose in The Hours.
I think your argument certainly cries out for discussion–– but have to agree that it is unfortunately syllogistic. I have been wondering idly for years ( to use one of your examples) if Angelina Jolie is some % african in heritage. Will we have to have tests in future to devise how correctly a person fits the role in blood typing or genetic match? I went to a stage production at U.C. Berkeley when I was a student there where all the major roles in the Cherry Orchard by Chekhov were played by African Americans. Should that have been denied them because they were not White/ Caucasians ( in appearance, anyway) nor Russians?

As a filmmaker who attempts to match the best person to the role no matter what the background ( with some adjustments to make the film seem believable) I think you'll just have to wait and see if the great Depardieu can pull it off.

I agree with HenryR, and the great Anthropologist Ashley Montagu , that "race " is a false concept.
Rated, and thrilled to see it as an Editor's Pick.
Everyone is mixed race. Everyone is offended everyday. Everyone claims everyone else is repressing them. Everyone is pissed off, everyone is upset, everyone is disappointed, everyone is mad at the other guy, everyone is a victim, everyone has been villified, everyone villifies, everyone wants to be different, everyone wants special treatment, everyone is angered by special treatment for the other guy, everyone is indignant, everyone demands attention for their cause, everyone points out how they are badly treated, everyone asks questions, everyone doesn't really want them answered, everyone questions the integrity of everyone else, everyone lies, everyone calls everyone else a liar.

This piece is another victim piece. Empower yourself...let go of your need to be special.
One blind spot white people can have and not be aware of, is how important it is for all people to see positive images of themselves reflected back in the media. Depardieu is one awesome example of a talented and sexy white homme. He has an equally handsome and talented mixed race counterpart somewhere, waiting to be discovered. While I've logged many moony hours gazing at GD onscreen, I want to see the mixed race guy honor Dumas in this one!
I guess the time to stop being offended is when as many non-white actors play colorblind roles as white actors. That's when we will actually see an increase in actors of other races and ethnicities.
I also did not know Dumas was of mixed race. But, my son makes a living in Hawaii acting and modeling as a Polynesian. Dark, curly black hair...but he's just another Idaho boy.
While I do agree that no actor should be limited in their roles if they can pull off "ethnically ambiguous", there's two issues going on here: 1) Alexandre Dumas, a highly influential author of classical literature, had African ancestry, a fact no one ever cared to point out (at least to me, growing up in the 1970's and 80's) when I was reading The Three Musketeers and taking literature classes in high school. And 2) I'm not French - and for all I know, there are mixed race actors in the French or European film industries who could truly shine in this role. They may already be very famous, or they might need that break. That doesn't take away from Depardieu, who's awesome.

There was absolutely NOTHING "victim piece" about this post.
This is a thoughtful and well-written exploration. Our world and American culture is changing -- for the better -- as variety of appearances "gain cache". Who'd a thunk it, 50 years ago?

My Nana (grandmother on my mother's side) passed as white; her mother was black. My grandmother on my father's side was half Cherokee. I have written on this (http://open.salon.com/content.php?cid=68908, and http://open.salon.com/blog/greg_correll/2009/04/02/trying_on_white).

Thank you for this.
Hmmm...several issues raised here and perhaps confounded with each other a bit.

First, yes indeed 'white privilege' permeates euro-american and many other cultures, and yes indeed it sucks and should be leaned into like a wind.

And, in terms of the portrayal of an actual person, such as Dumas, it would of course be preferable for the actor to be able look quite a bit like that person. (That is not at all the same as saying that the actor should have the same or similar genetic/biological or socially constructed "race" combination.) The key to good acting however, is often less in the appearance of the actor, but in the actor's ability to make their 'acting' invisible and for the viewer to suspend their disbelief and 'buy' the character.

Further, yes indeed we are all 'mixed race', with some of us meeting expectations for what that's "supposed" to look like, and some of us not (speaking as a Viking, Cherokee, German, Tibetan here - also known as 'white'), thus that should not be a reasonable criteria for much of anything, including a particular acting or any other job or role.

Part of the narrative of both 'race' and 'ethnicity' is that people in particular racial or ethnic categories are expected to be automatically more authentic representatives of a particular culture.
That was perhaps never true and is certainly far less true now. (I have often found that I know more about Japanese culture than a "Japanese" person born and raised in Southern California for example, but far less than someone of any race born and raised in Tokyo.) Culture is a process quite different than race or ethnicity.
I love Dumas and never knew this. Lovely post. Thank you! R.
I was going to take a lot more words to say what Angela Quattrano did: I guess the time to stop being offended is when as many non-white actors play colorblind roles as white actors. That's when we will actually see an increase in actors of other races and ethnicities.

The problem is not who can play what, it's who may play what. It's again, like most racial social questions, about the power and the access.
My son is impossibly white. Too fair, skin burns. He married a Brazilian woman and has a toddler son. She is a lovely mixture of African, Arab, Caucasian, Lebanese, Indigenous etc. My grandson turned out very fair with blue eyes and freckles like his Dad.
The Brazilians who are almost all mixed in the 3rd largest city in Brazil flock to this 2.5 year old and rave about him because of his white color. My son who was raised with African-Americans in family and friends just gets furious because they practice the "whiter is better" game in Brazil, while out of the other sides of their mouths say they are so proud of being mixed. It wasn't what he expected. So, he gets pissy with them and states the truth that his American family wanted him to be darker to give him more protection from the sun in Brazil and Texas. Cultural gasps!

He will come back and forth between Texas and Brazil on summer vacations and may end up here, who knows? I suspect that he would have to sit down with people when he is older and tell them his racial mixture because they will never pick it up just looking at him. All of our friends know because I was so excited at his coming (first and probably last grandchild) and background. What do you all think?
bumping in the feed because this is worth reading. You write with such clarity and care.

(ignore cameleon; he's just one of those temporary OS aberrations)
L’Autre Dumas is obviously crapola just by the casting of the lead role. I wouldn't even begin to consider seeing such trash. Americans don't realize how much white racism prevails in France outside the most cosmopolitan large population centers. It's like if an American film about say, Muhammid Ali or Malcolm X, both of mixed race, were played by an all white actor whose skin was artificially darkened for the role. How would Americans react to a film in which Brad Pitt was cast as Muhammad Ali or one in which Jeff Bridges was cast as Malcom X? Nuff said.
1) The people complaining about Depardieu playing Dumas are devotees of hypodescent, the idea that people of mixed ancestry should only identify with the ancestral group that is the most socially inferior. Who SHOULD play Dumas? He was 3/4 white, not 3/4 black. The fact that the people advocating this idea claim to be "of color" (a stupid term about as valid as "non-Aryan") and whine about supposed "racism" whenever they're displeased confuses people of good will. What they are advocating is really a "liberal" form of the racist idea of "white purity," in which the old idea of biological superiority (white genetically superior to black) is replaced with the equally invalid idea of moral inferiority (white morally inferior to black and other nonwhite identities). The result, of course, is a deliberate attempt to maintain racial definitions and divisions that should and would be dying if many black-identified folks didn't fight like hell to keep them alive and use their inflated moral authority (white guilt) to silence dissenters.

2) Ask yourself what Jews would say if someone suggested that only actors of "Jewish blood" should play Jewish or part-Jewish characters? They wouldn't tolerate it. They are not that stupid. If they were stupid, they would try to retain the old "Aryan/Non-Aryan" division of Europe and try to put a "positive" spin on it ("Non-Aryan pride," maybe?). They know that such a rule (even if legally unenforceable but morally intimidating) would send a negative messages that 1) Something is wrong with "Jewish genes" and 2) If non-Jews are not eligible for Jewish roles, perhaps the opposite is or should also be true.

3) The job of an actor is, by definition, to pretend to be someone he is not. Anthony Quinn was mostly Mexican with an Irish grandfather, but he played Greeks, Russians, Italians, Eskimos and numerous other ethnicities. Anthony Hopkins, a Welshman, has played Spaniards, medieval Anglo-Saxons, former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and John Quincy Adams, a psychotic serial killer and numerous other roles that have nothing to do with his personal lineage. His competence to play all these roles has not been questioned except in the case of his role in "The Human Stain" in which blacks and some of their liberal allies denounced him as a "white" playing a "black" role even though the character in question was predominately white and identified as such.
I learned that my paternal grandmother was African American, following dead ends and census records and discovering that branch of the family tree had had a long history of "passing" as white in the South, where the one-drop rule applied. It may have been prudent, given the nightriders and the terrorism. Now, at 57, I'm somewhat startled to discover my African American heritage but would like to embrace it without seeming like, you know, "me too." I have at least stopped ironing my hair, letting it do what it wants to do, I will share my genetic heritage with healthcare providers who might need the info, and I'm going to get involved with the Mixed Heritage Center despite the fact that most members have probably always known their history instead of learning only in late middle age.
When I first heard about this film coming out inFrance and all the hoopla about the casting, I had a very similar reaction. However, once I was able to take a step back and speak with people in France, including some amazing mixed actors, I still had problems with the film, but Gerard Depardieu was not the biggest one.

The first issues that the movie makes it seem like Dumas didn't write his own work. This brings about the next issue. The French term for ghost writer is écrivan nègre. So, even if he is being portrayed by a white actor, the film still displays him as a, let's be nice and say, Negro writer in how he has to be discussed in the film.this creates Avery strange mirroring to me.

As for the other issues for French society at large, it is important to remember that the council and other organizations are newish movements, not really gaining momentum until ~2006. The bigger issue for all the people I was able to speak with really was the liberties taken with history. I think most people, for better or for worse, understand why they chose who was chosen. However, when we discussed some of the language being used by the council to describe the problem, they became quite upset because they truly disagreed with certain terms.