The Family Changes Colour: Interracial Families in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

The Family Changes Colour: Interracial Families in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

Volume 43 Issue 3 (Autumn 2002)
pages 271-292
DOI: 10.1093/screen/43.3.271

Nicola J. Evans, Lecturer of Media and Cultural Studies
University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

How profound the hatred, how deep the bigotry… that wakens in this image of black life blooming within white…. It is an image that squeezes racism out from the pores of people who deny they arc racist.
Patricia Williams

In December 1998, DNA tests identified Thomas Jefferson as the father of at least one child with his black slave woman Sally Hemings. The discovery spawned numerous commentaries in the media on the significance of this finding and many large claims were made. Superficially what was at stake was the right of Hemings’s descendants to claim Jefferson as an ancestor and to be buried in the Monticello family plot, a right long contested by some of Jefferson’s white descendants who control the foundation and the graveyard. But there were many who saw the decision as symbolic not just of a past that the USA had erased, but a future towards which it might tend. For Lucian Truscott IV, a white Jeffersonian descendant who supports the Hemings’s claim, the finding affirmed that this Country ‘is a family not only in democratic theory, but in blood’? Allusions to the national family were quickly buttressed by parallels drawn between Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton, another president accused of extramarital liaisons, whose 1992 campaign was attended by rumours that he had fathered a black child. Lisa Jones, writing in the Village Voice, summed up the tenor of many commentaries by declaring ‘I can’t think of a more potent metaphor of American race relations at the millennium than the battle over graveyard space at Monticello’.

The findings of the Monticello committee capped a decade in which a surprising number of films, both mainstream and art-house, began to explore familial ties that cross the colour line. Some of these films, such as Made in America (Richard Benjamin, 1993), Secrets and Lies (Mike Lieigh, 1996) and A Family Thing (Richard Pearee, 1996), have plots reminiscent of abolitionist literature, in which the discovery of an interracial relationship in the past throws the family into melodramatic disarray. Other films, including Six Degrees of Separation (Fred Schepisi, 1993), Smoke (Wayne Wang, 1995), Losing Isaiah (Stephen Gyllenhaal, 1995) and Finding Forrester (Gus van Sant, 2000), feature whites who become symbolic parents to black children, often with the suggestion that these metaphorical ties are more rewarding than the relationships the parents have with their own white children. The question this paper considers is whether the growing screen presence of the interracial family is a step forward in the task of imagining more democratic race relations. If our concept of the family changed colour—from white to something more multicoloured—would this strengthen and improve interracial bonds as many activists through history have insisted, or is the fight for inclusion in the family plot indeed a fight for graveyard space?

For mainstream films to be considering interracial relations at all is a departure. When it comes to race Hollywood has toed the colour line, producing either all-black films, or white-cast films with token representation of African-Americans. The rare instances in which interracial relations occur are designed to be temporary, or to end tragically. Even the black and white buddy movie, the most popular format for including interraciality, typically suppresses or evades racial issues through rousing paeans to the race-transcendent bonds of masculinity. For mainstream films to be exploring interracial families is startling. Both on screen and off, the taboo against race-mixing within the family has seemed particularly strong. In the quotation that heads this paper, Patricia Williams suggests that the image of a mother suckling a child of another race is an idea that sticks in the gullet of even those who are most liberal on race issues. Benetton, a company famous for its taboo-breaking advertisements, appeared to agree when in 1989 they cancelled a campaign that proposed to feature a poster of a black mother breast-feeding a white child.’ What is special about the family that makes the imagination balk at the prospect of race-mixing here, even when cautiously permissive of interracial friendships outside the family?

Until recently, the censorship of interraciality on screen was matched by a paucity of interracial studies in scholarship. Gregory Stephens notes the tendency among scholars to pathologize interraciality, viewing even,’ relationship that crosses racial lines as inevitably exploitative or oppressive. As Stephens points out, such an assumption enforces the colour line by making ‘any interracial relations beyond rape or genocide unimaginable . Citing Frederick Douglass s definition of racism as ‘diseased imagination’, Stephens calls us to begin the task of creating more affirmative scripts for interraciality. It is in the spirit of this work that I examine the representation of interracial families on film. While aiming to stay alert to ways such representations may recycle racist scenarios, my goal is to see whether there is material here with which to envision more equitable relations between blacks and whites across the unnatural chasm ot the racial divide.

Although this essay will focus on film, I begin with the Monticello affair because it suggests why the family is such an explosive site tor the exploration of race issues. Specifically the Monticello case points to three aspects ol the family as an ideological entity: the family as a primary measure of social well-being, the interdependency of family and narrative, and the historical opposition between family values and race values…

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