Passing is a 2021 film directed by Rebecca Hall based on the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. Set in the roaring twenties and firmly within the clutches of the vibrant Harlem Renaissance, two old friends cross paths during a chance meeting. What makes their meeting remarkable, is the fact that both, light skinned African American women, are masquerading or passing as white women.
The movie starts on a hot summer’s day where we meet Irene Redfield known as Renee, played by Tessa Thompson, waiting in line in an all-white toy store, her facial features deliberately obscured by the lace brim of her hat. She appears to hide beneath it. As spectators, we have the privilege of knowing why, whilst the white patrons around her seemingly have no clue. That she is pretending to be white to gain access to a particular space during a time of segregation and high racial tensions. Overcome by the sweltering heat, Irene catches a taxi, with ease, to the exclusive Drayton Hotel.
Whilst sipping on her beverage at the hotel, a blonde stares openly, confrontationally even, at Irene who becomes noticeably more uncomfortable. Looking around her in bewilderment, perhaps for an opportunity to escape.
This is a very poignant moment for the audience who see the women juxtaposed. We know that both are passing, however one is confident in her surroundings so much so that she fools the other into believing that she is actually white. The ‘white woman’ who is glaring at her begins to feel like a tangible threat in blowing her cover. She eventually approaches Irene and there is some confusion when the blonde woman, played by Ruth Negga, professes to know a bewildered Irene. She introduces herself as Clare Bellew, an old college friend, now a striking character. Their reunion is warm and Clare invites Irene to her suite where the two discuss their lives.
Clare cuts a glamourous and haughty figure, impressive even, but as she talks it becomes apparent that whilst both are light skinned black women who share a past, they have chosen opposite life paths. Irene, the wife of a black doctor in a black neighbourhood appears perplexed when Clare discusses her fear during her pregnancy that her child would ‘turn out dark.’ Irene quickly cuts in saying, ‘mine are dark’ so that there is no confusion as to what her identity is, despite admitting that she passes occasionally for convenience, hence why she is at the hotel in the first place. Irene’s discomfort is visible and she makes an attempt at leaving but Clare insists that she stay. Shortly after, Clare’s husband arrives at the suite and she introduces Irene to him. He greets her with ease, none the wiser about her ethnic origin. In fact, he is so comfortable in her company that he reveals that his nickname for his wife is ‘Nig,’ clearly a nod to the olive tone of her skin and the offensive racial slur. Clare reacts by laughing like a giddy schoolgirl at her husband’s ignorant bigotry and continues to do so when he professes to hate black people, ironically not knowing that he is in fact in the company of two black women, one being his very own wife. Rebecca Hall captures the palpable anxiety of being found out in Passing so easily.
It becomes obvious then, to the audience that what unfolds, is her former friend’s warped and desperate attempt to be accepted into white society. Much unlike her own occasional indulgences in passing in order to benefit from fleeting privileges. She makes haste to leave and relives the experience in disbelief and anger to her husband once she returns home. The absurdity of the event means that she completely ignores Clare’s invitation via letter to meet once again.
Unfortunately for Irene, Clare has more forthright plans and once she realises that Irene has ignored her letter, takes the liberty of showing up on her doorstep and inviting herself in. It could be argued that the moment Clare crosses the threshold of their black household, marks a metaphorical shift, whereby she removes her white mask and becomes black once more.
Here we see the ease with which she lets her guard down. There is a palpable relief that the viewer feels seeing her re-adjust to her ‘negro’ identity. This can be seen with the ease in which she speaks to Irene’s black maid, both of them dipping their feet in a basin in the backyard. This scene also marks an irony whereby despite living as a black woman in Harlem Irene refuses to converse with her maid in the same conversational manner that Clare does and arguably denies her the small dignity of at least that type of perceived equality. As a result, it could be suggested that whilst she lives as a negro woman, she utilises her privileges as a lighter skinned woman when she sees fit. Here we see that Rebecca Hall also holds Irene accountable for her own hypocrisy, however miniscule it may seem compared to Clare’s passing.
As stated previously, Clare is a charismatic and glamorously attractive figure and it’s not long before her charm sees her infiltrate Irene and her doctor husband’s own social circle. These scenes depicting her being accepted into their circle, even as a passing ‘negro’ woman, encapsulate the warmth and easy acceptance sometimes extended by the black community to others. Rebecca Hall explores how the concept of pretty privilege rears its head in Passing. The allure of Clare owing to her pretty privilege is just as central a concept as her passing as white.
Inevitably a sort of one-sided tension builds up between the two women as Clare appears to charm all the men she meets in their friendship circle, including her own black husband who had once scoffed at the very idea of Clare and thought her a very odd character owing to Irene’s story about her laughing at her racist husband’s jokes. This tension mounts to a crescendo that pushes on to the end of the film. What makes it all the more gripping is Clare’s seeming obliviousness through it all- is she or isn’t she aware? The audience are left pondering. Whether she does or doesn’t, the predicament they will all find themselves in, is set to be one of epic proportions.
Have you watched Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larson’s book Passing? Let me know in the comments below!