Loving, the first likely contender in next year’s Oscars race, depicts the quiet resilience of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple in 1950s Virginia facing enormous legal and social opposition to their interracial union. But before the Lovings’ lives came to be celebrated in art, Hollywood had to contend with its own conflicted history of depicting interracial relationships.
The silent film era occasionally featured mixed-race relationships — sometimes to condemn them, as in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and nearly always using white actors to portray both parties (Birth of a Nation included extensive use of blackface, while Richard Barthelmess donned yellowface to play the Chinese man in love with Lillian Gish in Griffith’s sympathetic romance Broken Blossoms).
But in 1930 the Motion Picture Production Code (colloquially known as the Hays Code, after then-Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association president Will H. Hays) explicitly forbade the depiction of miscegenation, which it defined as “sex relationships between the white and black races.” The code was meant to curb immorality in the film industry — profanity, “excessive and lustful kissing” and disrespectful uses of the flag also were prohibited — and because interracial marriage was still banned in 30 states, its depiction in film would imply the condoning of an illegal act.
The code was actively enforced from 1934 through the late ‘40s, with violating films failing to secure release. This happened to Josephine Baker’s 1935 classic Princess Tam Tam, which stars the entertainer known as Black Venus as an exotic Tunisian woman who becomes the muse of a French novelist. The pic, produced in France, was denied a Production Code Administration certificate of approval and therefore could not be screened in most mainstream theaters in the U.S., although it gained a cult following in independent cinemas that catered to black audiences.
There were exceptions: Universal’s 1936 adaptation of the wildly popular Broadway musical Show Boat, which features the revelation that the wife of one of the white leads is part-black, was granted an exemption because its source material was already so familiar. It likely also helped that the biracial character was played by Helen Morgan, a white actress. And MGM’s 1951 version of Show Boat cast the white Ava Gardner in that role — Lena Horne, who campaigned for the part, claimed that the Hays Code prevented her from getting it.
Another film, Twentieth Century Fox’s 1949 drama Pinky, got around the Hays Code through the same casting loophole. The story directly dealt with passing — the title character is a light-skinned black woman who travels north and falls in love with a white doctor, who assumes she is white as well. Although black screen sirens like Horne and Dorothy Dandridge vied for the starring role, producer Darryl Zanuck opted for the white Jeanne Crain, who received an Academy Award nomination for best actress for the part.
Even when the story did not depict an interracial relationship, the Hays Code was used to prevent two actors of different races from performing opposite each other in a romantic or marital context. In MGM’s 1937 adaptation of The Good Earth, about a family of farmers in China, nearly the entire ensemble appears in yellowface, even though Anna May Wong, one of the first (and only) Chinese-American movie stars, was available to play O-Lan, the female lead. But because the Hays Code made it illegal for her to appear onscreen as the wife of Jewish-American actor Paul Muni (playing the lead, Wang Lung), the role went to German-American actress Luise Rainer, who won the best actress Oscar for playing the Chinese farmer’s wife.
The anti-miscegenation clause was removed in the Code’s 1956 revision. The next year, Warner Bros.’ Sayonara, about two U.S. Air Force pilots who fall in love with a pair of Japanese women, won four Oscars, including for supporting couple Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki (who remains the only actress of Asian descent ever to win an Academy Award).
Perhaps the most iconic cinematic example of interracial romance is Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which won two Oscars and was a box-office hit. The Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn dramedy was released in 1967, six months after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.
Hollywood continues to be skittish at times when it comes to depicting interracial love. Will Smith said in 2005 that Eva Mendes was cast in Hitch to avoid pairing him with either a black or a white actress: “There’s an accepted myth that if you have two black actors in a romantic comedy, people around the world don’t want to see it. … So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up — that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.” But the legacy of films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Loving indicate that, as is so often the case, critical and commercial success may be the most compelling motivators of progress.