I Passed for White

Last updated
I Passed for White
I Passed for White.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox
Written byFred M. Wilcox
Based onnovel by Reba Lee as told to Mary Hastings Bradley
Produced byFred M. Wilcox
Starring Sonya Wilde
James Franciscus
Cinematography George J. Folsey
Edited by George White
Music byJerry Irvin
John Williams (as Johnny Williams)
Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures
Release date
  • March 18, 1960 (1960-03-18)(U.S.)
Running time
93 minutes
Country United States
Box office$1,700,000 (US/ Canada) [1]

I Passed for White is a 1960 film directed and adapted for the screen by Fred M. Wilcox from a novel of the same name by Reba Lee "as told to" Mary Hastings Bradley. The film stars Sonya Wilde and James Franciscus and features Jimmy Lydon, Patricia Michon, and Isabel Cooley. It was released by Allied Artists on March 18, 1960.



Bernice Lee (Sonya Wilde) is a young woman of mixed African and European ancestry, living in Chicago with her family, and she is mistaken for a fully white woman by a white man, who tries to hit on her repeatedly. Her brother, more obviously of mixed heritage, fights off the man. Bernice's grandmother consoles her when she confides her troubles.

After a failed attempt at looking for employment as a black woman, she decides to leave town. She begins to use the name Lila Brownell and live as a white woman. On the plane to New York City, she meets and eventually marries the man of her dreams – Rick Leyton (James Franciscus) – and fails to mention her African ancestry, an important omission as interracial marriage is not a constitutional right in 1960. Rick and his wealthy family and friends are white. Her white friend Sally (Patricia Michon) and black maid Bertha (Isabel Cooley) both advise her not to tell him. She becomes pregnant, and fears the child will have black features or coloring – and gets a book to read about this unlikely possibility, which she hides. Rick eventually discovers it, and their maid claims the book belongs to her.

Lila goes into premature labor and has a stillborn child, but cries out "Is the baby black?" after she awakens from anesthesia. This leads Rick to suspect that his wife has been unfaithful. Eventually, she and her husband divorce without Bernice's having revealed her true name or past. She then returns to her family in Chicago and her original identity.

The ending is an example of the tragic mulatto trope. [2]



A white actress was cast as the producers felt many White audience members would not want to see an inter-racial relationship between two actors on the screen. [3]


Eugene Archer of The New York Times stated that it was "low-budget" and used "tabloid sensationalism"; he concluded that it was "Amateurishly written, directed and played". [4]

Although similar in story arc, Janine Bradbury of The Guardian stated that it "failed to match the success of Imitation of Life ." [5]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bernice Johnson Reagon</span> Musical artist

Bernice Johnson Reagon is a song leader, composer, scholar, and social activist, who in the early 1960s was a founding member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) Freedom Singers in the Albany Movement in Georgia. In 1973, she founded the all-black female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, based in Washington, D.C. Reagon, along with other members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, realized the power of collective singing to unify the disparate groups who began to work together in the 1964 Freedom Summer protests in the South.

"After a song", Reagon recalled, "the differences between us were not so great. Somehow, making a song required an expression of that which was common to us all.... This music was like an instrument, like holding a tool in your hand."

Mulatto is a racial classification to refer to people of mixed African and European ancestry. Its use is considered outdated and offensive.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eddie Bernice Johnson</span> American politician

Eddie Bernice Johnson is an American politician who represents Texas's 30th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives. Johnson is a member of the Democratic Party.

High yellow, occasionally simply yellow, is a term used to describe a light-skinned person of white and black ancestry. It is also used as a slang for those thought to have "yellow undertones". The term was in common use in the United States at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, and is reflected in such popular songs of the era as "The Yellow Rose of Texas".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fredi Washington</span> American actress (1903–1994)

Fredericka Carolyn "Fredi" Washington was an American stage and film actress, civil rights activist, performer, and writer. Washington was of African-American descent. She was one of the first people of color to gain recognition for film and stage work in the 1920s and 1930s.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sexploitation film</span> Genre of independently produced, low-budget feature films

A sexploitation film is a class of independently produced, low-budget feature film that is generally associated with the 1960s and early 1970s, and that serves largely as a vehicle for the exhibition of non-explicit sexual situations and gratuitous nudity. The genre is a subgenre of exploitation films. The term "sexploitation" has been used since the 1940s. Sexploitation films were generally exhibited in urban grindhouse theatres, the precursor to the adult movie theaters of the 1970s and 1980s that featured hardcore pornography content. The term soft-core is often used to designate non-explicit sexploitation films after the general legalisation of hardcore content. Nudist films are often considered to be subgenres of the sex-exploitation genre as well. "Nudie" films and "Nudie-cuties" are associated genres.

The tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries, starting in 1837. The "tragic mulatto" is a stereotypical mixed-race person, who is assumed to be depressed, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the "white world" or the "black world". As such, the "tragic mulatto" is depicted as the victim of the society that is divided by race, where there is no place for one who is neither completely "black" nor "white".

<i>Partus sequitur ventrem</i> Former legal doctrine of slavery by birth

Partus sequitur ventrem was a legal doctrine passed in colonial Virginia in 1662 and other English crown colonies in the Americas which defined the legal status of children born there; the doctrine mandated that all children would inherit the legal status of their mothers. As such, children of enslaved women would be born into slavery. The legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem was derived from Roman civil law, specifically the portions concerning slavery and personal property (chattels).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lila Meade Valentine</span>

Lila Meade Valentine was a Virginia education reformer, health-care advocate, and one of the main leaders of her state's participation in the woman's suffrage movement in the United States. She worked to improve public education through her co-founding and leadership of the Richmond Education Association, and advocated for public health by founding the Instructive Visiting Nurses Association, through which she helped eradicate tuberculosis from the Richmond area.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Effa Manley</span> Baseball player

Effa Louise Manley was an American sports executive. She co-owned the Newark Eagles baseball franchise in the Negro leagues with her husband Abe Manley from 1935 to 1948. Throughout that time, she served as the team's business manager and fulfilled many of her husband's duties as treasurer of the Negro National League. In 2006, she posthumously became the first woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, chosen by the Special Committee on Negro Leagues for her work as an executive.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Elm Court (Lenox and Stockbridge, Massachusetts)</span> Historic house in Massachusetts, United States

Elm Court is a former Vanderbilt mansion located on Old Stockbridge Road, straddling the town line between Lenox and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and until July 2012 was owned and operated as a hotel by descendants of the original owners.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Patricia Medina</span> British actress

Patricia Paz Maria Medina was a British actress. She is perhaps best known for her roles in the films Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954) and Mr. Arkadin (1955).

María Isabel is a Mexican telenovela produced by Carla Estrada for Televisa. It aired on Canal de las Estrellas from August 4, 1997 to February 6, 1998. María Isabel, is one of the few telenovelas that focuses on the life of an indigenous female protagonist and her community. The story was written by Yolanda Vargas Dulché and adapted by René Muñoz.

The Freedom Singers originated as a quartet formed in 1962 at Albany State College in Albany, Georgia. After folk singer Pete Seeger witnessed the power of their congregational-style of singing, which fused black Baptist a cappella church singing with protest songs and chants, their performances drew aid and support to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the emerging civil rights movement. Seeger suggested The Freedom Singers as a touring group to the SNCC executive secretary James Forman as a way to fuel future campaigns. As a result, communal song became essential to empowering and educating audiences about civil rights issues and a powerful social weapon of influence in the fight against Jim Crow segregation. Rutha Mae Harris, a former freedom singer, speculated that without the music force of broad communal singing, the civil rights movement may not have resonated beyond of the struggles of the Jim Crow South.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sharon White (businesswoman)</span> British CEO and former civil servant

Dame Sharon Michele White, Lady Chote, is a British businesswoman. She is currently Chair of the John Lewis Partnership, having previously held a variety of roles in the Civil Service. She was the Chief Executive of the British media regulator Ofcom from March 2015 to November 2019, and was Second Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury from 2013 to 2015. She was the first black person, and the second woman, to become a Permanent Secretary at the Treasury.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bernice Robinson</span>

Bernice Robinson (1914–1994) was an American activist in the Civil Rights Movement and education proponent who helped establish adult Citizenship Schools in South Carolina. Becoming field supervisor of adult education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), she led political education workshops throughout the south, in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and other states to teach adult reading skills so that blacks would be able to pass literacy tests to vote. Between 1970 and 1975, Robinson worked for the South Carolina Commission for Farm Workers, supervising VISTA workers and directing day care centers. In both 1972 and 1974, she unsuccessfully ran for the South Carolina House of Representatives, becoming the first African American woman to run for a political office in the state.

Sonya Wilde is an American former actress, best known for her starring role in the 1960 film I Passed for White. She started her career as Maria on Broadway with the original cast of West Side Story.

Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South is a play about race issues by Langston Hughes. It was produced on Broadway in 1935 by Martin Jones, where it ran for 11 months and 373 performances. It is one of the early Broadway plays to combine father-son conflict with race issues.

Bernice Smith White was an American community worker, civic leader, and a leader for equal rights for women. She was educated in Baltimore City Public Schools and received her bachelor's degree in education from Coppin State College. She also studied political science, government, personnel management, behavioral aspects of management, labor relations, and equal opportunity at Morgan State University, the Community College of Baltimore, George Washington University, the University of Maryland, and Fisk University. She taught in the Baltimore school system for about 12 years. In the Baltimore Urban League she worked as a volunteer in programs to provide job opportunities for youths.

Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story is a 1993 American drama film directed by Alan Metzger and written by Judith Paige Mitchell. It is based on the 1993 book Preacher's Girl by Jim Schutze. The film stars Elizabeth Montgomery, David Clennon, John M. Jackson, Grace Zabriskie, Bruce McGill and Mark Rolston. The film premiered on NBC on May 3, 1993.



  1. "Rental Potentials of 1960", Variety, 4 January 1961 p 47. Please note figures are rentals as opposed to total gross.
  2. Luther, Catherine A.; Lepre, Carolyn Ringer; Clark, Naeemah (2017-09-12). Diversity in U.S. Mass Media (2 ed.). Wiley Blackwell. p.  149. ISBN   9781119234029.
  3. "I Passed for White". WUSTL Digital Gateway Image Collections & Exhibitions. Retrieved 2021-08-07.
  4. Archer, Eugene (1960-08-18). "'I Passed for White'". The New York Times . Retrieved 2021-08-07.
  5. Bradbury, Janine (2018-08-20). "'Passing for white': how a taboo film genre is being revived to expose racial privilege". The Guardian . Retrieved 2021-08-08.