The staying power of Passing in 2021 goes far beyond its ripped-from-the-headlines resonances, however. Larsen’s story endures, on the one hand, for its intricate depiction of female friendship, rivalry, and lust – lines of heat that mutate and shift kaleidoscopically over the course of the narrative.
* * *
Judging by recent examples from Sundance to Hollywood and beyond – Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, to name just a few – the art of the black-and-white film is alive and well in 2021. However, perhaps no monochrome movie asks its viewers to think so explicitly about contemporary collisions between “black” and “white” as Passing, out on Netflix and in select theatres. The directorial debut of actor Rebecca Hall, Passing is based on Nella Larsen’s classic 1929 novel about two African American women who navigate race, love, and the “hazardous business” of passing for white in Jazz Age New York. Though Larsen was only marginally appreciated by literary audiences of her time – she maintained her day job as a hospital nurse for much of her life – she’s since been acknowledged as a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Subtle, seductive, and all too timely, Hall’s film is an effective and affecting take on Larsen’s masterpiece.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga star as Irene Redfield and Clare Bellew, two old friends, who, it’s implied, wouldn’t mind being more than just friends. The film’s opening scenes depict them reconnecting by chance on a scorching Manhattan day on the roof of the ritzy Drayton Hotel, where each is passing for white. However, whereas Irene – mother of two, wife of a well-to-do Harlem doctor, and devoted volunteer for the Negro League – is only dabbling, Clare has made passing her life’s work. Light-skinned, bleached-blond, and charming, Clare is visiting from Chicago with her husband John (played by Alexander Skaarsgåard, who, between Passing and his villainous turn in Big Little Lies, seems to have a lock on vile white man roles). John has no idea his wife is a black woman – a fact that Clare subversively plays with, much to Irene’s horror. “[Clare] keeps getting darker and darker,” John muses in his first encounter with Irene, whom he also fails to recognize as black. “I tell her if she doesn’t look out she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a n––––!” This moment – one of several that prompted an audible intake of breath from the theater audience I watched with – exemplifies the dramatic irony and dangerous intimacies that Passing expertly navigates throughout.
Irene and Clare’s reunion sets in motion a tense and thought-provoking chain of events, as Clare quickly and clandestinely moves to reinsert herself in the African American community she left behind as a child (“I’ve so missed being with Negros!”). In the process, she also manages to insert herself in her friend’s marriage, beginning a covert affair with Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland, who also plays a turn-of-the-century doctor in Cinemax’s series The Knick). Torn between anger, jealousy, and loyalty, Irene watches as her role in her community and her family is gradually usurped. The film’s careful cinematography and classical 4:3 aspect ratio closely capture Thompson’s tortured yet controlled performance, while the score, composed by Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, uses inventive variations on Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s “The Homeless Wanderer” to generate alternating emotions of yearning and suspense. Hall, who is the child of British theater icon Sir Peter Hall and the opera singer-actor Maria Ewing, has discussed how she drew on her own experiences of being mixed race and white-passing to write and direct the film. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the director’s and stars’ theatre credentials – not to mention the period-perfect costuming and set design – I often found myself thinking the movie would also have worked well on stage.
While the literature of passing has been around since the nineteenth century – think Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) – Passing emerges in a context in which the topic is anything but passé, as a spate of recent novels, films, and news events have resurfaced the phenomenon in the popular and literary imagination. Brit Bennet’s best-selling 2020 novel The Vanishing Half, for instance, follows twins whose strategic performances of race and gender lead them down drastically different paths. Bennett, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as herself in the latest season of HBO’s Insecure, has openly acknowledged her novel’s debt to Passing, as well as to later “passing narratives” like Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1998). And yet the truth of passing is still stranger than its fiction. Spike Lee’s 2018 film blackkklansman, for instance, tells the true story of a black police officer who goes undercover as white to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Even more curious are the recent cases of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, white women who passed themselves off as black for years in order to gain prominent roles in African American activist communities and academic departments. The critics Mollie Godfrey and Vershawn Young recently edited an entire collection of essays on this contemporary cultural phenomenon, which they dub “reverse” or “neo-passing.”
The staying power of Passing in 2021 goes far beyond its ripped-from-the-headlines resonances, however. Larsen’s story endures, on the one hand, for its intricate depiction of female friendship, rivalry, and lust – lines of heat that mutate and shift kaleidoscopically over the course of the narrative. Indeed, literary theorists like Judith Butler routinely read Passing within the tradition of queer literature; in interviews, Bennett has similarly noted that she sees the novel’s homoerotic storyline not as subtext, but as text. Some of the strongest scenes of the film are the opening, near dialogue-less ones, in which a coded look and extended hand give a nod to the depth of the two lead characters’ suppressed desire – more on that in a minute.
On the other hand, Passing remains powerful for its undeniably contemporary politics. One of the central conflicts of the film, for instance, centers on Irene and Brian’s heated debate over whether to shield their two young boys from learning about the racial violence of the times – a theme also taken up by Caucasia, as well as by works like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2013) and Hilton Als’ White Girls (2014). The Redfields’ dilemma will no doubt both prompt and reflect similar discussions at many viewers’ homes.
The film also astutely explores pressing issues around colorism and racial fetishism, using its black-and-white format as a meditation on how the white gaze reduces folks of color to a spectrum of tints and shades. One of the richest scenes in Passing takes place at the party Irene has painstakingly organized for the Negro League, and which Clare has invited herself to at the last minute. As Clare dances with a procession of ever-more dark-skinned partners, Irene looks on alongside the party’s guest of honor, the famous (fictional) white novelist Hugh Wentworth (played by Bill Camp). When Irene divulges to Wentworth that Clare is black, it prompts the film’s most direct discussion of the scope and politics of passing, as the two weigh the upward mobility passing affords against its physical dangers and ethical compromises. “If you can [pass for white],” a bemused Wentworth asks, “why wouldn’t you?” Wentworth, who is modeled after Larsen’s close friend, the author, photographer, and Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten, is watching his wife dance with various black men when he asks this – as both the film and novel subtly suggest, Wentworth is a willing cuckold and racial fetishist. “We’re all passing for something or other, aren’t we?” Irene quips in response.
Though Irene’s question enables the film to explicitly challenge the solidity of racial and sexual identity categories, it also falls somewhat flat. This moment offers what is arguably Passing’s overarching thesis, yet it also reads like the conclusion of an essay written for Gender & Sexuality 101. Part of Irene’s implication is that Wentworth is gay and passing for straight – indeed, Van Vechten himself was married to a woman and carried on affairs with men throughout his life. However, such themes remain unspoken in the film, and, as a result, the implicit queer critique that so charges the novel translates only partially to the screen. It occasionally feels like the movie’s commitment to style and subtext pulls it up short from making a more provocative and purposeful point. For instance, as Irene begins to suspect Brian and Clare of carrying on an affair, the question of whether or not it’s all in her head is depicted with admirable and engaging ambiguity. But in leaving the story of lesbian desire largely latent, the film merely doubles down on a somewhat tired heteronormative narrative of the femme fatale homewrecker.
Maybe these slightly tepid sexual politics only seem disappointing when read against the current cultural climate. In the lead-up to the film’s release, one of the biggest stories at Netflix has revolved around the media giant’s defense of Dave Chapelle’s latest stand-up special, The Closer, which doubles down on the comedian’s recent history of transphobic remarks. Though Chapelle was once known as a countercultural icon, his joking-not-joking declarations of allegiance to “Team TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) have alienated large swaths of his audience, particularly on the left. Perhaps most frustrating is Chapelle’s repeated insistence throughout his recent comedy that blackness and queerness are mutually exclusive categories: “In our country,” he bemoans in The Closer, “you can shoot and kill a n––––, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” The fact that a person can be both black and queer is apparently news to Chapelle, but it’s an unspoken yet resounding reality for Larsen’s characters – and one with consequences that reach even wider and deeper than hurt feelings. As Chappelle’s comments continue to elicit open letters of complaint and walkouts from many of Netflix’s showrunners and employees, the movie’s muted intersectional critique can sound a slightly hollow note – almost as if it’s towing its distributor’s party line.
Nevertheless, Hall’s film remains insightful and necessary, consistently upsetting, if not entirely upending, industry standards and cultural norms. The climax of Larsen’s novel is famously thrilling and famously ambiguous, fusing the indeterminacy at the heart of the passing genre with the “whodunnit” relish of a noir thriller. I was excited to see how the movie would pull it off, and Hall’s take doesn’t disappoint. Fans of the novel will enjoy the maddeningly slow burn of the film’s final minutes, while new viewers will get to freshly experience the gut-punch impact that the explosive climax generates. What lingers in the mind’s eye, however, is far more than the gorgeous final shots. To leave the black-and-white world of Passing is to appreciate all the more the vibrant color and vast gray spaces that define our contemporary political moment. Everyone may be passing for something, but this film makes it impossible to go on without asking why.
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film, courtesy of Netflix.