The idea of African Americans "passing" for Caucasians as has been examined throughout the history of American cinema.
This came to fore most noticeably during a spate of "passing" films during the ’50s and ’60s that included the Douglas Sirk remake of Imitation of Life (1959), Fred Wilcox’s I Passed for White (1960), and Hugo Haas’s Night of the Quarter Moon (1959). These films fell out of favor as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Rather than passing for white, Carl Lerner’s Black Like Me (1964) attempted to examine race relations via a white man (James Whitmore) posing as black.
Lerner’s theme would be reworked as a comedy in 1996 via Steve Miner’s Soul Man. Since then, most passing has been done in comedies wherein black characters portray whites: Chris and Paul Weitz’s Down to Earth (2001), Donald Petrie’s The Associate (1996), and Charles Lane’s True Identity (1991). It should be noted that passing made a notable return in Robert Benton’s The Human Stain (2003).
Looking at Black Like Me and Soul Man as bookends between "passing" melodramas and "race-switching" comedies, we see a small group of films in the middle that fit into neither of these genres. Instead, they could be considered science fiction, fantasy, or even exploitation films. Released during the tumultuous end of the ’60s, each explored racial relations by turning the tables on their protagonists. In Melvin Van Peebles’s The Watermelon Man (1970), insurance salesman Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) wakes up to find that he’s turned black overnight. Meanwhile, in Lee Frost’s The Thing with Two Heads (1972), Dr. Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland) has his head transplanted onto the body of African American convict Jack Moss (Rosy Grier) in an emergency medical procedure. While both of these films have found popularity and have been released on DVD, a major race-switching film has remained an obscurity until recently.
Liberated from a German film vault, Robert Stevens’s Change of Mind (1969) begins in an operating theater where district attorney David Rowe is undergoing a radical medical procedure. Doctors transplant his brain from his cancer-ridden body into the skull of Ralph Dickson (Raymond St. Jacques). During recovery, he quickly notices how differently his former friends and coworkers treat him. Some of his friends are forced to confront their own racism. A few accept him readily while others abandon him. Worse yet are those who appear to be friends but backbite him at every opportunity.
Most affected by living with this new body is not David Rowe but his wife, Meg (Susan Oliver). She has difficulty coming to terms with her husband’s personality suddenly coming from a stranger. Change of Mind does a great job exploring the uncanny experience of a man living life with a new face. He may be David Rowe but he looks like Ralph Dickson. David still finds himself shocked at his reflection and plagued by bizarre dreams.
Quickly recovered, David goes back to work. Of course, his first case has race at its core as he’s prosecuting white Sheriff Gene Webb (Leslie Neilson) for the death of black Henrietta Johnson. You can best believe that Webb comes off as being as racist as the day is long. More distasteful than Webb’s epitaph-laced rhetoric, Rowe is threatened and cajoled by his coworkers and superiors.
If Change of Mind has a weak spot it comes from the unexplained relationship between Ralph Dickson and David Rowe. How Dickson’s healthy body became the vehicle for Rowe goes unaddressed until almost an hour into the film. And, even then, it’s left a bit sketchy. Thankfully the film avoids having an ironic twist that Dickson was involved in the murder of Henrietta Johnson, as if to predate James D. Parriott’s Heart Condition (1990) in which a white cop (Bob Hoskins) has the heart of a dead lawyer (Denzel Washington).
The scenes involving Dickson’s widow, Elizabeth, are particularly poignant. Janet MacLachlan wonderfully conveys the hurt and confusion of seeing a loved one as a stranger. It’s only when Meg talks to Elizabeth that the two women can come to grips with this new man in their lives.
Change of Mind ends a bit too abruptly for my liking. While I wasn’t expecting complete resolution, the film left me hanging. Perhaps it was this open ending that doomed this film to relative obscurity. Moreover, it was probably the mature approach of volatile subject matter told with such a bizarre conceit that left Change of Mind omitted from the pantheon of cinematic race portrayals.