Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing, which stars Tessa Thompson, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was recently acquired by Netflix.
Colorism has reached the forefront of conversation in recent years as Hollywood and culture at large has been asked to reckon with its obvious preference for lighter skin. Companies have made a show of providing a wider range of skin tones in their make-up and lingerie lines. Both Beyoncé and Solange have released popular songs and videos celebrating dark skin and the diverse beauty of Black women. Their intentions are clear: using positive representation to uplift Black women and alter the conversation around beauty standards for the better. But despite the renewed interest, colorism has always been part of the lives of Black women. There have always been those who endorsed it, condemned it, or pointedly opposed the conversation entirely. Regardless of their position, Black women have always been aware of the privilege associated with proximity to whiteness.
Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut, Passing, is an exploration of this: a gorgeous and confounding piece of work made all the more difficult by its insistence on approaching race with an odd detachment. The film, based on the critically acclaimed novel by Nella Larsen, is a story about race and identity that finds its own subject matter to be absurd. It’s a story about colorism presented to us in black and white, starring two actresses who would likely not be able to “pass” in reality. I mention this not to discourage Hall for her casting choices, but rather to state plainly my belief that the film is not trying to be a straightforward adaptation of the novel. The lack of color pushes viewers to not think too deeply about the details of skin tone — the variance of color, the difference in undertones, and the visual warmth of skin — and instead rely on the characters’ performances to form our racial perceptions.
The film, which is set sometime in the 1920s, tells the story of the straight-laced Irene (Tessa Thompson) and the wild and unpredictable Clare (Ruth Negga), who are reunited after 12 years without contact. When they meet again at the start of the film — the two grew up together in Chicago, with Irene being well-off while Clare was dirt poor — they are both rich with drastically different ways of acquiring their comforts. Irene remained in the Black community, moving to Harlem marrying Brian (Andre Holland), a well-off doctor, and having two sons. Instead of working, she dedicates her free time to philanthropy, with her hired help doing most of the cooking and cleaning. She also volunteers for the Negro Welfare League, Larsen’s stand-in for the NAACP. Alternatively, Clare acquired her wealth by passing across racial lines and marrying a racist white international banker (Alexander Skarsgard). Her deception has been wildly successful as she hasn’t had any real contact with Black people since her marriage. Early in the film, she even expresses to Irene her relief that her daughter Margery didn’t turn out dark and upend her carefully crafted illusion.
In the novel, Larsen is very specific with her descriptions of color. Irene is described as olive-toned; Clare’s skin is referred to as “ivory,” and her husband Jack is “dough-faced.” In contrast, the darker skin tones of Brian, Irene’s friend Felise (portrayed in the film by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), and both of Irene’s maids are described with words like “copper,” “bronze,” “mahogany” and “tea-colored.” Each color gives the mind a collection of often sumptuous images, grouped together in an endless visual color palette. Hall’s film makes no such distinction, flattening the colors and, by extension, the conversations attached to them. This gives the film a meta sensibility — its refusal to play by the rules of the novel plays out as criticism. Hall approaches colorism as a concept, not a reality. For her, race is theater, shaped by our perceptions.
While the film, which was recently acquired by Netflix, lacks color and the warmth of skin, it radiates with the heat of sexual attraction. The 4:3 aspect ratio pushes Clare and Irene close together in the frame, encouraging viewers to focus on the way the two women gaze at each other. Together, their coupling is personified by longing and sorrow, notes both actresses are skilled at playing. Often when one looks at the other, they seem on the verge of tears. The film is explicitly romantic, with Irene’s complicated love for Clare conflicting with her desire to keep her marriage intact. Clare is much harder to get a read on — with her inviting eyes and expressive mouth, she appears to fall in love with everyone she comes into contact with. She flirts with Irene and Brian, suggesting a love triangle too taboo to be fully acknowledged. The score, composed by Devonte Hynes (better known as Blood Orange), enhances the beauty and emotional unrest of the characters in every scene.
Clare’s rediscovery of her Blackness is centered on Irene, often giving off the impression that she both wants to be with her and take her place at the same time. This danger curdles Irene’s love for Clare into something all-consuming. This is more apparent in the novel, as we are treated to Irene’s anguished inner monologue. But on-screen, Thompson struggles with portraying Irene’s interiority. Negga struggles too but in a different way. Though her performance tries to buck against the cinematic legacy of the “tragic mulatto,” her screen presence lacks the confidence of the femme fatale she’s clearly supposed to be. Instead of the husky voice described in the novel, Negga’s American accent sounds more like a wounded, tragic Southern belle. Clare’s damsel in distress facade never gives way to something darker, more controlled and confident.
An arena where they both excel is in their interaction with the unspoken rules of the Black bourgeoisie. Irene’s maid is dark-skinned, and her low regard for her mirrors that of white women. Clare notices this instantly and Irene responds defensively: “Everyone needs help.” But despite this explanation, Irene can’t help but police the way she spends her time. When she sees her relaxing outside with Clare, Irene scornfully badgers her into going back to work. Clare shows no such formality with the maid, even though her wealth permits her to act just as Irene does. The ease in which Clare interacts with all the Black people around her is shown in stark contrast to Irene’s stifling formality. When her husband tries to talk to their sons about a lynching in Arkansas, Irene becomes angry, exclaiming that she doesn’t want to discuss “the race problem” in her house. It’s clear Irene cares more about the appearances of “the race” than actually being part of it. Her voice also feels like a put-on, with a sense of proprietary that no one around her seems to share.
The only time Irene truly seems comfortable is with her white friend Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp). The scene they share together at the Negro Welfare League benefit is the best in the film. When Hugh asks Irene if darker-skinned Black men are attractive, she rejects the notion, referring to infatuation with darkness as “exoticism.” The most interesting part of their exchange comes when Clare is revealed to Hugh as a Black woman. “Tell me, can you always tell the difference?” he asks. Irene is offended by the question, feeling defensive at the thought of there being anything communal or instinctual about Blackness. Her comfort with Hugh and discomfort with their conversation speaks volumes. Thompson has an easy chemistry with Camp and there’s an Old Hollywood flavor to the framing and rhythm of the scene. This helps undercut the darkness of what Irene is saying — though she’s disgusted by the idea of passing, she also seems somewhat disgusted with herself for not doing so.
That pivotal scene underlines the entire film, honing in on its conflicted relationship with its subject matter. Though it has a primarily Black cast, Passing does not feel like a Black film. It’s a film about Blackness as a concept, which admittedly is an important quality it shares with the novel. Even so, it’s a bit too matter-of-fact, lacking any real investigation into Larsen’s themes and the deep cultural conflicts that provide the meat of her narrative. Despite the unity of cinematic vision and the impressive skill of the actors, the characters don’t come together in the same way. Thompson and Negga give the most adventurous performances of their career thus far, pushing against Hall’s anemic approach to social commentary. Their eyes reveal a familiarity and racial intimacy — something that “can’t be registered,” as Irene would say — that the film is unable to provide. Passing, much like Claire, suffers from the absence of Blackness in all its beauty.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.