How Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing taps into themes of colourism, identity politics and white privilege through its detailed characterisations of its biracial Black leads and assured cinematic style.
The phenomenon of ‘passing’, in which the racially minoritised adopt the traits of whiteness to avoid persecution, has recently had an odd resurgence in our pop-culture landscape. Last summer, Brit Bennett’s New York Times bestselling novel The Vanishing Half captured imaginations with its absorbing account of Black twin sisters whose shared life in small-town Louisiana is forever bifurcated when the lighter-skinned sibling decides to extricate herself from the past and create a new identity as a white woman. In April, journalist Natalie Morris published the illuminating non-fiction work Mixed/Other, wherein she analyses the particularities of navigating multiple racial identities in daily life (with a chapter on passing that concludes ‘race really comes down to little more than how you’re perceived in any given social setting’). Now, for her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella for the screen.
Simply titled Passing, the film follows the biracial Black women Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), and their opposing experiences living either side of the racial divide in 1920s New York. Irene embraces her Blackness in Harlem, volunteering for the local Negro League charity, while her former classmate Clare forsakes it and has settled down with a white husband (the suitably Aryan-looking Alexander Skarsgard) who is completely oblivious to her African American heritage. Over the course of the narrative, the women cautiously rekindle their friendship, with Clare embedding herself deeper and deeper into Irene’s inner circle and the Black community at large.
Hall’s striking visual language sets up her two protagonists as foils for one another and, through their surface differences, externalises the socially mandated racial split that cleaves them apart. On a cosmetic level, their hairstyles are diametrically opposed – Irene has midnight locks, Clare platinum-blonde waves – and the film’s stark, black and white cinematography strengthens this contrast. The environments they inhabit also highlight the difference that separates them. Irene’s traditionally appointed Upper Manhattan home, with its deep mahogany surfaces and windowless corridors, is defined by darkness, whereas the hotel suite in the racially segregated establishment Clare blithely occupies is flooded with sunlight that bounces off the pale sheets and upholstery. Making clever use of cinematic form (for example, the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio to metaphorically mimic how the companions are hemmed in by society), the first-time writer-director clues us in to how her characters’ appearances and surroundings affect the way they are considered, before they ever utter a word.
When they do speak, however, it quickly becomes apparent that such parallels extend to their personalities as well, with each character internalising outside perceptions about the racial group she occupies. Thompson plays Irene with a cowering meekness, wearing her hat so low that the brim obscures her eyes. Life as a Black woman in the Twenties – an intolerant climate of verbal abuse and the ever present threat of physical violence – has taught her to stay within her community and keep quiet. It is telling that, when out in public, Irene dials down the volume of her speech and talks with an apologetic soft-spokenness that communicates her nervousness (Devonté Hynes’ fidgety piano score adds to this mounting sense of unease). By contrast Clare, protected behind her cloak of borrowed whiteness, radiates confidence, chattering fluently with her head held high to a visibly tense Irene in her Caucasian-only hotel and, later, brashly ordering about a room-service telephone operator. Gregarious and unafraid of discovery, she is so adept at performing whiteness that she has inculcated its socially acceptable qualities (the boldfaced self-assuredness that Blackness wouldn’t allow her). She moves through the film with the carelessness of The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, taking what she wants with scant regard for the consequences on others or, ultimately, herself.
Through its central characters, Passing offers a commentary on privilege, on how light skin can be used as a key to unlock access to certain spaces. In Mixed/Other, Morris writes, ‘There is a narrative that passing is always a conscious decision, a deception.’ Hall’s film upholds this idea, since it (perhaps unfairly) presents Clare trying on her Black identity like one of her embroidered coats that can be shrugged off the minute it gets uncomfortable. Clare is shown to have one foot in each camp: she does not belong to any community and has allegiance to no one. And yet, beyond this telegraphed betrayal, Negga powerfully conveys the profound solitude inherent in Clare’s two-pronged existence, lamenting ‘this pale life of mine’ and watching Irene’s tenderness towards her Black husband (André Holland) with wide-eyed sadness. Clare’s experiences are akin to the sister who passes in The Vanishing Half, who opines that ‘lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift’.
Passing grapples with racial politics and colourism, before, in its final moments, conceding that fighting against the stolidity of whiteness is futile. The film ends with a snowstorm, flakes whirling against the New York sky, powder blanketing the streets. These beautiful images deliver a dispiriting but relevant message: whiteness envelopes everything eventually.
PASSING IS RELEASED IN CINEMAS ON FRIDAY