The film Passing, which adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel and is now available streaming on Netflix, opens with a profusion of confusing sights and sounds. We strain to detect what we see and hear. Is that traffic? Are those legs?
By the time the screen resolves into a black-and-white New York street, with two women shopping on a hot summer day, our role as observers has been elevated in importance in direct proportion to all that makes our viewing so strenuous. The images clear, but the story remains fuzzy. Something has just been broken. Who broke it? Why does a woman hand a “pickaninny” doll to two others? Is the doll a clue?
Passing is the act of living as a person of a race other than that which has been designated; light-skinned Black people have sometimes passed as a way around racist restrictions. In Larsen’s time, passing was perceived as widespread (for the most part, it wasn’t) and newspapers reported a panic, amongst whites, over determining who was who. The film’s stress on perception goes to the heart of passing: determining what is around us. Passing is about the power, and the problem, of deciding who and what we are, who and what we can be—the power to define categories and detect belonging.
Passing stories, an important tradition in Black literature (Frances Harper, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, George S. Schuyler, Britt Bennett, and others all wrote influential fiction about passing), are not always detective stories—Nella Larsen toys with the genre—but they are always stories about detection and discernment, observation and judgment. Who settles the identities that a passer embodies? How are they fixed in place? Who judges a passer’s success or failure, on what grounds and with what authority? Can identity categories be called into question and destabilized by the act of passing, or must passing always replicate an already established identity in order to achieve authenticity?
Larsen’s novel opens differently from Rebecca Hall’s new film adaptation, but its message about the challenges of making sense of what we think we see is the same. Larsen’s novel begins focused on Irene Redfield, at home in New York, puzzling over an “almost illegible” letter that seems “out of place and alien,” lacking any return address or other markings “to betray the sender.” The reader can’t know what to make of this. Yet Irene thinks she has it all figured out. Before opening the letter, she determines its sender to be Clare Kendry, a childhood friend now passing for white, and judges it “sly” and “furtive.” The letter, she decides, is a “danger” to be “disliked.” Her judgments are made without the benefit of information. Instead, they are “of a piece with all that she knew of Clare Kendry.” Is Irene an unusually perspicacious reader, able to decipher even a sealed text? Or is she one who rashly jumps to conclusions?
Judgments that are “all of a piece” are passing’s terrain. Passing demands an adept performance of received ideas about others. A successful passer plays to type. Successful passers must take care to be all of a piece with what we, collectively, already think and feel one another to be.
In the novel, Irene, who passes casually, is an unreliable narrator whose judgment we question. The film undercuts her perceptions visually, since we see the world through her eyes. Often, Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) is asleep, once drugged, sometimes half-conscious. She looks at things upside down, sideways, in a fog. In one particularly telling scene, she looks downstairs into her drawing room and spies her husband, Brian (André Holland), and seductive Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) inches from each other, talking intimately. As she suspiciously descends the staircase, however, the camera angle changes and it becomes apparent that Irene’s perception was off; they are eight to ten feet, not eight to ten inches, apart. Irene’s insights are predetermined by her beliefs, as most insights are.
Irene’s values are conventional: family, duty, work, responsibility, fidelity—“the right thing.” To her, these seem unobjectionable and normal. Unchallenged, though, they quickly become confining and, ultimately, deadly. The film’s black-and-white palette mirrors Irene’s chosen world, where servants stay in the kitchen, spouses are faithful, children are innocent and “race women,” like Irene, do volunteer work, read The Crisis and host benefits—“the right thing.”
Clare ruptures that order. She seems to be in color, even in a black-and-white film. She drinks, dances, suns, laughs and sobs. She mocks motherhood and marriage. Clare’s love of Blackness and disdain for whiteness is frank, emotional, even essential. She moves by elemental feelings, by “wild desire,” not obligation or compulsion. Everyone is drawn to Clare, especially Irene. Played with delicious sensuality by Negga, Clare attracts, in the way that all rule breakers do. “I’m not safe,” she declares to Irene. “I don’t have proper morals.”
Of course, Irene, not Clare, is the one who is truly dangerous. Irene, not Clare, breaks things—flowerpot, teapot, possibly more. “I had only to break it,” Irene tells her friend Hugh (Bill Camp), to rid herself of what she did not want. Irene passes for “safe.” Our job is to detect that she is anything but.
In the classic Black-authored passing story, the work of detection is not in service of differentiating Blacks and whites. Even one hundred years ago, most Black writers regarded race as a fiction and social construction. Instead, the typical passing story depicted white society as vacuous, and passing into it as a bad personal choice. The failings of whiteness are the reason that passers regret passing and return home. “They always come back,” Brian tells Irene in the film. “It’s my dream to come back [to Harlem],” Clare admits.
Had Larsen stopped there, with this complex contrast between Irene and Clare, her story would have been very much in the tradition of most Black passing narratives—a lesson in the deadly consequences of social segregation and repression, a challenge to white supremacy and cultural notions of white superiority, a critique of Irene’s “right way.”
But Larsen did not stop there. Larsen interweaves a dominant racial story with an unconventional sexual and erotic one. Clare’s racial passing and its ultimate unraveling do not drive the plot; the understory of Clare and Irene’s mutual attraction does. Irene’s efforts to repress her attraction (largely by projecting it onto her husband, Brian, and imagining that he is having an affair with Clare) direct the novel’s tragic and ambiguous outcome. Did Irene dispense with Clare, just as she earlier dispensed with the flowerpot and teapot? Perhaps. (The film is a bit less vague on the matter than the novel.)
Irene and Clare—“strangers … in their racial consciousness”—embody the opposite approaches to racial identity that were characteristic of their time and, conceivably, of ours as well. Irene, certain that race is a social fiction but believing it to be an ethics nonetheless—that one owes “loyalty” to one’s “own” people—is drawn to someone for whom race is real, essential, and felt, but who rejects any social obligations created by it. Clare, for her part, has thrown away any ethics of race. But she is also ineluctably, and dangerously, drawn to someone whose entire reality is bound up with ethical and moral codes of racial identity. Both women long for what they intellectually eschew. Both adhere to convictions they do not—and cannot—fully feel. As readers and viewers, we are implicated. What do we want from this story? Do our desires bow to our beliefs? Do our longings pull against our convictions?
The film generally hews very closely to Larsen’s novel, but Hall subtly modernizes it. Most contemporary viewers will perceive Negga and Thompson as mixed-race, not white, rendering their various racial designations—white one moment and Black another—patently absurd. Every attempt to catalog these mixed-race figures seems arbitrary, capricious and, hence, indefensible—the very point about racial assignments that Larsen struggled to make.
Almost one hundred years after the novel’s publication, this film stokes the “wild desire” its author originally depicted. Larsen demonstrates that desire is always wild, because it is always disruptive, even—perhaps especially—when it passes for safe. This seems truest where race and longing intertwine, revealing the ways that both constitute one another and, at the same time, break each other to bits.