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Lisa Gotto, "Passing and Posing between Black and White: Calibrating the Color Line in U.S. Cinema" (Bielefeld: transcript, 2021), 250 pp.:


Lisa Gotto, Passing and Posing between Black and White: Calibrating the Color Line in U.S. Cinema (Bielefeld: transcript, 2021), 250 pp.

Lisa Gotto’s Passing and Posing between Black and White: Calibrating the Color Line in U.S. Cinema ambitiously sets out to make an important contribution to the representation of racialized transgressions as well as to the discussion of formal and aesthetic developments in twentieth and early twenty-first-century U.S.-American cinema. Juxtaposing Hollywood mainstream films and independent cinema productions and approaching them from a diachronic perspective, the book is arranged in three sections which focus on specific points in time and comprise two case studies each: Conquered—Unconquered, on the 1910s and early 1920s; Reflections—Shadows, on the late 1950s; and Blackface—Whiteface on the early 2000s. The chosen films in each section, Gotto argues, “are each exemplary for certain aspects of the field of investigation that converge at a higher level in the question of the conditions and effects of racial boundary crossings in American film” (23). While the section titles seemingly suggest neat opposites, overall, Gotto’s nuanced readings seek to complicate binary understandings of “good” versus “bad” depictions of racial passing on screen and, instead, highlight the complexities of cinema’s ongoing struggle to find a (formal) idiom through which the racialized “slippage between varying subject positions” (111) in the United States might be depicted.

In the first section, Conquered—Unconquered, Gotto examines D. W. Griffith’s silent epic drama Birth of a Nation (1915), acknowledging the film’s “expansion of filmic grammar” (27) while foregrounding its White supremacism as well as its tendency to falsify history. Importantly, she writes that “in judging Griffith’s artistic achievements, we must not lose sight of the fact that the film’s formal strategies are only effective in relation to its ideological intent” (27). Focusing particularly on the biracial figure Lydia Brown and the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan in the film, she argues that it not only reiterates racist narratives but also actively produces a condensed racist perspective through its own aesthetic and visual practices. The second chapter in this part is dedicated to Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 film The Symbol of the Unconquered. Gotto attributes the director’s pioneer status to his investment in producing and distributing feature-length films with an all-African American cast as well as in accentuating unconventional and complex socioeconomic questions in his films, with “racial mixing” as the most dominant theme in his literary and filmic oeuvre. Surprisingly, it is only in this chapter that Gotto addresses the book’s eponymous motif of passing, which she identifies as “synonymous with a black person’s crossover into the white sphere and, therefore, into the sphere of social privilege” (51). In The Symbol of the Unconquered, however, “the act of passing is presented as an ambivalent situation that, on the one hand, indicates social mobility but, on the other hand, addresses the danger of isolation and self-extinction in denying one’s racial ancestry” (53). While it remains largely unclear how the section’s eponymous notion of “conquered” vs. “unconquered” plays into Gotto’s readings, she highlights fundamental differences between Micheaux’s and Griffith’s works particularly with regards to their representation of race and gender, and yet, convincingly refuses to interpret The Symbol of the Unconquered as either pure imitation of Hollywood style or wholly subversive counter-cinema.

Skipping almost four decades, the book then moves on to discuss Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) in the second section of the book, Reflections—Shadows, which Gotto situates at a crucial turning point in film history; the beginning of Hollywood’s cinematic modernism. Sirk’s film, Gotto argues, self-reflexively negotiates its own artificiality and embraces ideological and aesthetic contradictions, rather than offering solutions to social and political problems. In particular, the remarkable close readings in this chapter highlight how Imitation of Life “translates the structural fabric of acknowledgement and denial into visual terms” (93) and thus foregrounds the discursive and performative nature of racial identity. By depicting Sarah Jane’s (the film’s protagonist’s) repeated failed attempts at “fixing” her identity through passing, Gotto demonstrates that the film not only exposes the “processual interminability of cultural designation practices” (112) but also raises important questions about the very possibilities of racial (self-)representation.

The second film in this section is John Cassavetes’s low-budget debut film Shadows (1959), which Gotto first approaches via a discussion of the director’s general filmic approach to then address its relation to Gilles Deleuze’s notion of a cinema of the body, focusing particularly on skin as “a medium of visibility” (153) as well as “the surface system of racial identification, through which racist discourse is kept in motion” (133). Although this chapter puts considerable emphasis on Cassavetes’s own intentions for making certain aesthetic choices, Gotto grounds her convincing interpretation in substantial and detailed close readings rather than in the director’s biography. In contrast to the multiple mirror scenes in Sirk’s work, she maintains that shadows become the structuring principle in Cassavetes’s eponymous film, which symbolize disorientation and deformation, but also transformation and openness.

The final section of the book, Blackface—Whiteface, discusses Spike Lee’s modern classic Bamboozled (2000) in conjunction with Robert Benton’s The Human Stain (2003). Outlining some of the controversies surrounding Lee’s unapologetic focus on Black liberation in his filmmaking, Gotto highlights how the director challenges the hegemony of the predominantly White entertainment industry and how it has benefitted from the flow of racist images. Here, Gotto’s focus lies less on the act of passing and more on the practice of posing, particularly on Lee’s reclaiming and reframing of minstrel shows and posing in Blackface to scrutinize the relation between race and media structures—as well as the configurations of racial capitalism that underwrite and sustain these, one might add. By contrast, Benton’s 2003 adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000), as Gotto contends in the book’s final chapter, negotiates not only the elusive promises of the American Dream but also the paradoxical mutability of hegemonic Whiteness as both “a source of dissolution as well as a means of ossification” (221) interwoven into the structural make-up of the United States. In this chapter, Gotto most successfully demonstrates how an attention to film’s formal and aesthetic strategies can contribute to broader discussions about race, racism, and representation; for instance, by exploring its potential to expose the often-invisible hold of unmarked Whiteness, here, through lighting and layering. Gotto takes these thoughts even further in her insightful conclusion: “Cinema stands for a media-specific realm of possibility for a racially contoured perceptual perspective, because, as a visual medium,” she argues, “film provides specific pathways through which to explore the representation zone of identity and difference” (224). While her assumption that being subjected to a discerning (cinematic) gaze risks implicitly romanticizing the racial hierarchies involved in the production of cinematic images and re-inscribing the distinction between Self and Other, her final deliberations also importantly acknowledge that such distinctions are ultimately part of an ideologically prescribed “cultural system of meaning and a specifically racial grid of identification” (224). As such, she persuasively advocates engaging with film as a way to not only foster our understanding of racial border crossing but also to reflect upon the limits and potentials of the medium itself.

While the topics discussed in Passing and Posing between Black and White doubtlessly remain relevant, overall, Gotto seems to situate her work more explicitly in the genealogy of Anglo-European film studies and is less devoted to other intellectual traditions and more recent pertinent scholarship, particularly from within the United States. This may be due to the fact that this book is an abridged and revised version of her dissertation, originally published in German as Traum und Trauma in Schwarz-Weiß: Ethnische Grenzgänge im amerikanischen Film as early as 2006. With only three exceptions, all cited sources in this revised version were published before 2010, most of them even before 2000. As such, it does not engage with more recent publications particularly on the topic of passing—e. g., Marcia Alesan Dawkins’s Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (2014), Julie Cary Nerad’s edited volume Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film (2014), or even Gayle Wald’s earlier work Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (2000)—but also on the representation of race and / in cinema more generally—e. g., Alice Maurice’s The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema (2013), the edited volume Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era (2016) by Pearl Bowser et al., or Michael Boyce Gillespie’s invaluable study Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016).

As a result—and given the traction and academic currency of Black studies in the past twenty years—Passing and Posing between Black and White often seems somewhat detached from current debates particularly in these fields. This is, ultimately, not a point of principle, but one of approach and methodology: Whereas the book’s title suggests that the acts of passing and posing are central, particularly in the first chapters, the social and political implications of these acts are often relegated to the margins of Gotto’s analyses. Even the terms “passing” and “posing” themselves are conspicuously absent from the text’s introduction and are never clearly delineated from one another—although the analyses allow readers to infer Gotto’s understanding of them. Instead, it is only over the course of the book that other dimensions of Gotto’s work unfold. Yet, Gotto overwhelmingly relies on White (male) scholars to explain crucial concepts such as “miscegenation” and, most significantly, repeatedly reproduces the n-word and other derogatory and dehumanizing terms in quotations, arguing that “the use of historically pejorative terms can be justified with clear reference to their conceptual context, which is why their mention will not be avoided” (18; emphasis added). It is in these passages that the author’s racial privilege and this book’s striking lack of devotion to current debates and important interventions in fields such as Black studies, ethnic studies, or even critical Whiteness studies are most thinly veiled.

Despite these problematic omissions, Passing and Posing between Black and White makes a compelling case for engaging with representations of racial passing on screen with a specific focus on aesthetics and form, and the ways in which they have contributed to filmic innovation in the United States. While the thrust of her readings of well-known works such as Birth of a Nation will not be surprising to readers already familiar with the films’ dominant reception, Gotto’s fantastic eye for cinematic details, such as lighting, pacing, or mise-en-scène, opens new perspectives even on such much-discussed texts. Her rich analyses interweave a variety of approaches and thus add important insights about formal and aesthetic developments in U.S.-American film history. Hence, while Passing and Posing between Black and White is less invested in discussing historical or social dimensions of racial passing—and perhaps even in reflecting its own racial politics (and privileges) that underwrite such an endeavor—it offers insightful close readings and proves particularly helpful for readers interested in aesthetic, generic, and formal developments within the broader context of U.S. film history.

Lea Espinoza Garrido (University of Wuppertal)

Works Cited

1 

Dawkins, Marcia Alesan. Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012. Print.

2 

Gillespie, Michael Boyce. Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2016. Print.

3 

Gotto, Lisa. Traum und Trauma in Schwarz-Weiß: Ethnische Grenzgänge im amerikanischen Film. Konstanz: UVK, 2006. Print.

4 

Maurice, Alice. The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2013. Print.

5 

Musser, Charles, Jane Marie Gaines, and Pearl Bowser, eds. Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2016. Print.

6 

Nerad, Julie Cary, ed. Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990-2010. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014. Print.

7 

Wald, Gayle. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-century US Literature and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

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