Lost Boundaries (1949)
Turner Classic Movies
This is not a joke, but it starts like one: two men walk into an office. They have come to pitch an idea to a Hollywood mogul, an idea for a blockbuster movie. Sort of. Their idea is a docu-drama on George Washington Carver.
Perhaps the idea doesn’t strike you as a winning one. But this was no ordinary mogul. His name was Louis De Rochemont, and he was the Academy Award-winning documentarian responsible for the March of Time newsreel series. He’d segued that success into an unprecedented contract with MGM giving him creative freedom to make whatever projects he wished, on his own turf. As a New Hampshire native, his own turf meant that state — and the projects he wished were ones rooted in reality. “The aim of any drama is to give the illusion of real things,” he explained, “So why not use real things in the first place?” These were not idle words, either–he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was, and always had. At the age of twelve, he’d sent away to Popular Mechanics for the blueprints of a motion picture camera, and then built his own according to the plans. With that, he then shot some film around his hometown and sold it to theaters. This hobby found him one day shooting footage of a submarine launch in Portsmouth, which was purchased by a newsreel company. The delighted kid took his earnings and used it–get this–to go to a New York theater and see his film on the big screen. Mr. De Rochemont was an earnest fellow, and that made him an ideal producer for a Carver bio-pic.
So, he sat and listened to the pitch, unconvinced but polite enough to not kick these two equally earnest kids out of his office, like so many other movie people would have done. De Rochemont looked at the two boys in front of him, one black and one white, and asked, “I understand why you want this film made… but what about you?” The white boy, an aspiring composer named Albert Johnston, Jr., smiled at the older man’s misapprehension. He explained that although many people mistake him for white, in fact he had been passing for years. Actually, he’d been passing his whole life, and only just learned the truth.
For contemporary readers, that term “passing” may cause some puzzlement. In the late 1940s, when this took place, however, it’s another matter. It was a time of rigid racial segregation, when even “one drop of Negro blood” was enough to consign a person to a permanent second-class status. Of course, “one drop of Negro blood” is a biologically ridiculous notion. I said it wasn’t a joke, but this part certainly is. There is no scientific way to distinguish one race from another–it isn’t a biological difference, merely a cultural illusion. And as a cultural illusion, it is built entirely atop what people look like. There are people whose lineage would identify them as “black,” but who do not look it. In the absence of some external proof of “Negro blood,” then, it becomes a question of the honor system whether these straddlers would choose to opt into the second class life that their racist society demanded. Little wonder, then, that there were some who were willing to be accepted as white…
Read the entire article here.