Director Rebecca Hall’s film Passing explores class, gender and skin color in early 20th century Jim Crow America. Her film is adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 book of the same name. To pass in the U.S. is a practice of some African-Americans assuming white identities.
In Passing, streaming on Netflix now, actors Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga sparkle as two childhood friends, Irene and Clare, who wrestle with the individual and social boundaries and choices of their time and place. The women’s portrayal of two friends convincingly shows how each navigates a social order that limits their full developments.
Hall’s black and white film also displays nuanced shades of gray, a splendid canvas for the story. Choosing color film would have been an error, in my opinion.
In any case, Thompson brings a robust sense of vulnerability to her role as Clare in Passing. I saw her first in Sorry to Bother You (2018) then in Little Woods (2018). Her authenticity impressed me then, and Thompson’s craft continues at a high level in Passing.
Thompson’s portrayal of Clare, a woman who on the surface has it all: a husband, two bright boys and an overall life of ease, one that does not prevent her from passing as white, albeit temporarily, begs the question. Why does she pass?
Negga as the character Irene takes passing as a white person to a different level. Irene has a white husband who hates blacks, though he is married to an African American. In a particularly painful scene to watch, Irene’s husband expresses his anti-blackness, laughing rather ghoulishly, in the presence of her and Clare. Initially, Negga drew my attention in Loving (2016) as the black wife of a white husband who together move from the Commonwealth of Virginia, where interracial marriage was illegal, to wed.
Why pass for white is a question that should answer itself. In brief, the choice has much if not all to do with the legacy of America’s racial capitalism. This system delivers concrete policy and political advantages and disadvantages to those with and without white skin. The color line that W.E.B. Du Bois writes about is alive and well in America.
Passing as I see it interrogates the subject of who is and is not white through Irene and Clare. That skin-color definition of course is fluid, a social construction, since scientifically there is a single human race. Eugenics, or so-called scientific racism, was one view of the claimed inferiority that some nonwhites possessed in the early 20thcentury, the setting for Passing. Jewish people, for example, were not yet white in America, as Irish immigrants before them had experienced prior to achieving their whiteness in the previous century.
The setting of Passing is the Harlem Renaissance, a high water point for people of African ancestry in the U.S. Black folks migrating north from the former Confederate states found opportunities denied them under Jim Crow. Still, the legacy of centuries of black bondage under white ruling class ownership cast a shadow on them, dramatized in Hall’s film via the characters of Irene and Clare.
The nation continues to deal with its history. If anything, the current moment is a mirror of sorts to that past, a little like the ones that Irene and Clare deal with in Passing.