One of the first things that came to mind after watching Passing, the debut film from actor-turned-director Rebecca Hall, was that it would make for a fascinating double bill with the documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché. The Ruth Negga connection aside, she provides narration in Poly Styrene, both films focus on Black women whose light skin tone afforded them the ability to blend into white society far easier than their darker skinned peers. However, full acceptance was always a conditional affair at best.
The films also share the fact that they were directed by women whose own mothers were of mixed-race. Their firsthand view of the complex issues their films are conveying offers a greater nuance. Too often films about race, especially those created by white filmmakers, lack a true connection with the subject matter.
A deeply personal film for Hall, Passing is her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. The film tells the story of the bond between former childhood friends, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Negga), whose lives have taken vastly different paths. Reconnecting after a chance encounter on a hot summer afternoon, Irene can barely recognize Clare aside from her trademark laugh. Rocking blond hairstyle she resembles an actress from the silver screen, the film is set in 1920s New York during the Harlem Renaissance, Clare carries the confidence that only those in high society can afford.
Considering that the women initially run into each at a posh eatery normally frequented by white patrons, Clare immediately assumes that Irene is fluent the act of “passing” – a term commonly used to refer to Black individuals who present themselves as white – just like she is. While Irene admits to passing on occasion for convenience, such as when she is in a store at the begin of the film and is treated with the respect normally reserved for white women, she is startled to hear that Clare has chosen to live her life that way.
As if Clare’s passing was not risky enough, she informs Irene that her white husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) has no clue she is Black. A fact that made the nine months when she was pregnant with her daughter, also white presenting, the most traumatic of her life as she feared the child would be dark at birth. While Clare believes that the financial and lifestyle benefits are worth the lifelong life charade, Irene finds it hard to reconcile with the choice after meeting John. Giving his wife a “lovingly” racist pet name, which refers to the fact that her skin has gotten slightly darker over the years, John is the type of individual that hates Black people despite never having interacted with one personally.
Repulsed that Clare would choose to stay with such a racist man, Irene tries to break off all communications with her. However, Clare soon ingrates herself into Irene’s life, even winning over Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland), and the two form a bond that expands to Irene’s larger Harlem social circle. As the bond between the women grows stronger, each woman’s desires become more pronounced.
The sense of longing is prominent throughout Passing on multiple levels. Irene is immediately drawn to Clare in a way that she cannot quite put into words. Her first encounter with her old friend is sparked by her eyes moving from a nearby couple kissing to gazing at Clare’s legs at the table across from her. Throughout the film her gaze moves to other body parts, with the slightest of touches between them giving off a sense of sexual tension.
This repressed sexual desire adds another layer to Irene, she remarks to her friend Hugh (Bill Camp), who is clearly at home in Black establishments despite his remarks occasionally coming off as a form of fetishization for Black culture, that “we are all passing” in some fashion. The physical toll it begins to take on her is nicely juxtaposed with Clare’s growing weariness of her life in white society. Clare longs for the sense of freedom that she once had when living within the Black community. As Brian notes early in the film, those who indulge in passing will always return home. While Hall’s film does not delve deep into the various historical reason for this, she makes it clear that, for Clare, passing has become an isolating and tiring affair.
By presenting the film in black and white, the isolating nature of white spaces feels even more pronounced. In removing the colour on screen, the film forces one to focus even more on the racial dynamics at play. It also helps that unlike most films of this nature, Hall casted a Black woman to play the passing role. This puts the audience in the rare perspective of predominantly Black individuals who are often more apt at identifying a person passing than their white counterpart. A fact that provides one of the films brief moments of humor when John assumes the reason Clare refused to hire a Black maid is due to her dislike of Black people, rather than the fact that they are most likely to out her.
The fragile nature of the lies one constructs, and the extensive work needed to guard it, is felt from the opening moments of the film. While Hall’s film could have delved much deeper into its themes, Passing is a well-crafted exploration of race, obsession, and sexual repression.