I recently watched one of the most beautiful and perhaps also one of the most significant movies I have seen in a long time. Passing, based on a 1929 novel by the Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larson (1891–1964), is a story of racial, gender, and sexual identity; of social class, racism, and more. This is the British actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, and it is a smashing success. Aesthetically, the one-hour, thirty-eight-minute film, shot on location in Harlem in black and white, is subtly gorgeous.
Tessa Thompson co-stars as Irene Redfield, whose life appears to be ideal. Married to a handsome doctor (Andre Holland as Brian Redfield), living in a stately Harlem townhouse with a maid and two beautiful children, she appears to be a particularly striking persona in the tiny, affluent Black middle class of the twenties. Her charity work provides a link to the broader community. Yet she seems distant, as if she is trying to understand her life. Just when all appears to be well, Irene meets an old friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), who is living her own good life, married to a white businessman (Andrew Scarsgaard as John Kendry) and passing for white. Through Irene, Clare reunites with her Black identity and confronts the lie she has been living. Through Clare, Irene confronts her own situation as a Black woman in a white society and as a woman in a man’s world. Her perfect life, it seems, is only one step from the horrors of racism, while her own ambition and sense of purpose are stifled under a veneer of middle-class respectability. Irene’s home, family, and friends are a refuge for Clare, who is clearly tired of the lie she lives every day surrounded by white society. Harlem’s society and culture seem to free her to live a real life, if only on brief visits.
All kinds of passing are going on here. Clare’s is the most problematic, as she is clearly unhappy, longing to be herself but afraid of what that will mean. Irene is also passing—as a respectable middle-class matron. Irene’s doctor husband is the ultimate family man, yet drawn, it seems, to Clare. Irene’s friend, the white writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), who stands in for the white middle class “slumming” in Harlem, submerges his gayness in bluster and intellectual arrogance. Finally, there is a smoldering attraction between the two women that Hall leaves just below the surface.
The emphasis here is on racial identity, more than on racism per se, and that may be the film’s only flaw. Given our current situation, a more direct approach might have been most welcome on this score. It is white supremacy, after all, that frames all this passing. For Hall, the whole situation is personal to some degree. Her own grandfather on her African American mother’s side passed as white. Her preoccupation with identity is genuine and engrossing, but it leaves in the background the terror all of her characters, and others, feel every day of their lives.
Larson’s story and Hall’s film capture the high life of bourgeois Harlem in the twenties, but something is missing. Those interested in the lives of Harlem’s poor will not find them here. Except as the anonymous recipients of Irene’s charity, they have no place in the story. They are invisible. Nor does Hall reflect on the effervescent race and class radicalism of the place between the wars. It is true that the United States was then and remains a conservative society. Harlem in the twenties and thirties was not. It was a place loaded with politics—Marcus Garvey’s Black pride speakers and Communist Party organizers contended on the street corners Malcom X would later inhabit.
The actors are superb. Thompson captures in a remarkable range of facial expression Irene’s ambivalence about her life and her agitation over reconnecting with Clare. Everything you need to know about this woman is there in Thompson’s face. Ruth Negga, the Irish/Ethiopian actress who played the wife in Loving, the 2016 film based on the Supreme Court case overturning miscegenation laws, conveys Clare’s tortured life between her openly racist husband and the Black culture and companionship she badly misses. The acting is beautifully understated, even in the face of the racism that frames the story. It takes a toll on both women in somewhat different ways. And then, we have Ruth Negga’s eyes . . . Watch them too closely and you are apt to lose track of everyone else.
I’ll not spoil the film’s searing ending except to say that it conveys the brutality of racism and its toll on real people like Irene, Clare, and those around them.
Jim Barrett is a historian of class, race, and ethnicity in the United States and author of From the Bottom, Up and the Inside, Out: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in Working Class History (2017).
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