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In Rebecca Hall's 'Passing,' people aren't always who they seem

Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare.
Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare.

I hadn't thought of this in years, but when I screened Passing, the new Netflix movie adaptation of Nella Larsen's classic book, a long-buried memory floated to the surface.

It was the late '60s. I was a teen, attending a garden wedding of a close family friend. After the meal and the cake-cutting, the bride's aunt started to chat as we watched the couple float across the floor for their first dance. Suddenly she turned to me and blurted: "If you would stop wearing your hair that way (like many people my age, I had an Afro), you could do what I do in New York, and just pass!"

I'm sure my jaw dropped. "Why would I want to?" I asked. The aunt had platinum hair and blue-violet eyes, and those amazing eyes widened. "Because, darling, your life would be so much easier!"

I'm not sure that it would have been, but I wasn't interested in finding out. To divorce myself from my family and friends so I could live a white life? How would that be easier? No thanks.

Making life easier for oneself is, of course, the central theme in Passing: both the 1929 book by Nella Larsen, and the new 2021 movie directed by Rebecca Hall. And Hall knows something about this subject; her mother's light-skinned Detroit family passed, though her grandfather, "maybe he was Native American. Maybe he was a little bit Black," as she told The Hollywood Reporter's Tatiana Siegel. Hall's mother, opera singer Maria Ewing, lived most of her life in Europe and was married to a white Englishman, director Peter Hall.

Hall herself grew up in England as white. "I don't have any experience of being a Black person in America," she added. "I don't know what that feels like because I present as white, I go through the world as white ... But I do have an experience of being raised by people who were also raised by people who made choices that were shaped by living in a racist society." Which, she felt, qualified her to adapt Larsen's story for the screen. Producers Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi agreed, and their company Significant Productions backed the film.

If you haven't read the book, here's the story: Clare Kendry is a mixed-race woman raised by her biracial father's white aunts after he dies. (Her Black mother is long gone; the book doesn't say how or why.) The aunts tolerated — but did not embrace — Clare, so as soon as she was an adult, she fled their household and began living as a white woman. Her pale skin and blonde hair caught the eye of a wealthy, bigoted businessman who assumed she was white; she allowed him to assume, and they married.

Clare became a mother, but was on tenterhooks until her daughter's birth, hoping her child would be pale enough to pass — which would also keep her own secret safe. She was, and Clare decided not to have other children because the risk of being outed by a dark baby would ruin her deception.

That worry allayed, Clare progresses through life blithely enjoying the privilege her pale skin and her husband's money provide — until she runs into her childhood bestie, Irene Redfield, in a hotel restaurant. Irene is passing too — but only for a few hours, to get a cold drink on a hot day in a place that doesn't admit Negroes as patrons. After some astonishment that they'd met again, the two reconnect, and things get ... complicated.

Clare's renewed relationship with Irene awakens in her an interest in becoming part of — or at least occasionally visiting — the Black community she abandoned. Here lies the central question of the film: Can you pass in and out of your racial identity? Clare's frequent uptown visits to Irene's family and her cadged invitations to social events held by Harlem's Black elite — even while married to her unsuspecting white husband — say "yes." Clare is welcomed by the chic, socially conscious Harlem crowd that seems to make being Black much more interesting than the bleached, easier existence she has chosen for herself.

But as Irene initially suspected, things will not end well. And Clare's reappearance raises internal and external tensions in Irene's life, too. Suddenly Clare's risk-taking (or recklessness, depending on how one looks at passing) makes Irene feel staid and ordinary. The marriage to her handsome doctor husband that she'd so prized feels less perfect than it once was. Brian Redfield has been urging his wife for several years now to agree to move from America to Brazil, which he assumes will be less toxic to Black people than lynch-happy America has proven to be. They fight constantly over whether their young sons should be shielded from racism at their tender age (Clare's preference), or educated about it (Brian wants them forewarned about the world's ugly realities). Both parents are seeking to protect their boys, but in opposite ways.

The movie looks like a James VanDerZee photo of the Harlem Renaissance come to life. It is shot in black and white: a smart choice, because the shifting tones make everything more, not less ambiguous. (I, like some Black viewers, did not think Negga and Thompson looked like white women at all, but that is part of the point — who passes is as much in the eye and mind of the beholder as in the intent of the one passing.) Hall does a good job of depicting the growing strain between the two old friends. At first, Clare needs Irene as entrée into the Black social life she suddenly thirsts for. But soon she is invited to Harlem events on her own, and Irene begins to resent Clare's ebullient presence in a social milieu in which she'd previously shone. What's more, Clare and Brian Redfield seem to delight in each other's company, something that raises Clare's suspicions about exactly what might be going there.

As Irene muses, at some point "we're, all of us, passing for something." Clare is passing in and out of being Black. Irene is passing as content with her upper middle-class life and her status as a doctor's wife. America is passing as a democratic nation, despite its relegation of its darker citizens to a second-class existence. Ironically, after the 1920 Census the category "mulatto," which indicated mixed ancestry, was dropped. Mixed-race people like Clare and Larsen became, on paper, non-existent to the government; they had to declare themselves one race or the other. One hundred years later, there was much more latitude on the Census form; multiracial Americans can now identify all their ethnicities and races.)

In Larsen's book, Clare is portrayed as a bundle of contradictions: warm and brittle, breezy and desperate, self-revealing and calculating. "I don't have proper morals or a sense of duty like you," she warns Irene. "I'll do anything, hurt anybody to get what I want. I'm not safe." Irene, still in the throes of their renewed friendship, doesn't believe her.

If she had, perhaps the story might have ended very differently.

Passing is streaming on Netflix starting November 10.

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