Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 1930s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929), a novella about a Black woman passing as white in an acutely discriminatory society, setting up the stage for some suspenseful and intense storytelling.
Irene Redfield is a wife and mother of two sons, maintaining an orderly home in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor, herself well connected and tightly engaged in the social life of her community. While visiting Chicago one time, she encounters an old school friend, Clare Kendry, whom she doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Clare who has spotted Irene in the rooftop restaurant and comes over to identify herself. That fateful reunion changes Irene’s life. Twelve years have passed since Irene last saw Clare from school. Now standing in front of her is
“an attractive-looking woman… with dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.”
That these two Black women can pass for whites and enter the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop restaurant is due to their light skin colour. This fact in itself implies the fluidity of racial definitions. Clare and Irene are biracial, and that term doesn’t even necessarily refer to half and half. Clare’s father is himself the son of a white father and a black mother. Her fair skin doesn’t betray her racial composition.
The character foil between Irene and Clare forms the crux and conflict in the story. Clare is bold and adventurous, a risk taker who is bound by no loyalty save for her own gratification. By marrying a white husband who is a banker, Jack Bellew, she has been living a privileged, white woman’s life. Curiously, she asks Irene “haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”
Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.”
To Irene, what Clare has done is dangerous and disloyal to her race. Well, she passes too sometimes but only when it’s necessary, like getting into Drayton’s rooftop restaurant to escape from the fainting spell due to the sweltering heat. But to Clare, it’s her life. She tells Irene, “all things considered… it’s even worth the price.” That is, despite the fact that she is living with a man who hates Blacks but is unaware of her racial heritage.
The search for identity is not so much the issue Clare is struggling with but loneliness. She has not been discovered for twelve years and now reuniting with Irene, she wants to re-connect with the people in her past life. Alluring and assertive, Clare gradually moves into Irene’s familial and social life.
Larsen’s 111 page novella is more than just about race. It is an intricately layered story that touches on multiple issues. While race is the most obvious one, more for Irene, but for Clare passing is for personal gain and socio-economic benefits, and the breakout of social boundaries. The book is also about female friendship, and the ambivalence that involves. Further, unexpected for all of them, as Clare enters Irene’s home, she begins to unhinge the equilibrium in relationships. She charms everyone, from the help to the two boys, and the most abhorrent suspicion Irene harbours, her husband Brian as well. Herein lies the turning point in the story.
Larsen tells her story with spare and concise narratives, her revealing of her character’s thoughts is precise and clear, that is, until we reach the ending. Like a suspense writer, Larsen has dropped hints as to where she’s leading the reader towards the end. And yet, it is as open-ended as how a reader is prepared to see. Herein lies Larsen’s ingenuity.
The film adaptation (2021) is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall who also wrote the screenplay. It is a project that she had attempted to launch for some years. The book aligns with a family history as her maternal grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white for most of his life in Detroit, Michigan.
What Larsen has written, Hall has materialized on screen with parallel, meticulous mastery. That the film is shot in black and white is a brilliant idea, for viewers can see quite readily, in between the black and the white is a spectrum of greys, clearly showing Larsen’s concept of the fluidity of socially-constructed racial definitions. The 4:3 Academy ratio works to lead us into a glimpse of a specific past where Clare could well fit the image of a flapper in 1920s NYC.
Hall has simplified the locations and mainly focused on Harlem. She has effectively selected the essential passages and lines and transposed them on screen. Out of Larsen’s spare novella the writer-director has created a thought provoking visual narrative with stylish aesthetics and implications that still resonate in our times.
I’ve always been intrigued by the image on the Penguin Classics edition of the book cover. At the beginning of the film, Hall shows us the significance of it. Irene wears a translucent hat that’s half covering her face, an aid to shield her features as she goes shopping in Manhattan, just in case, and in the hotel room where she meets Clare’s racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a necessary means of defence.
The interplay between Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare is immaculate and well-directed, nuances revealed in the slightest changes in facial expressions and gestures. The reunion of old friends is not all celebratory, an ambivalence is clearly conveyed by Irene. Andr´é Holland (Moonlight, 2016; Selma, 2014) plays Brian, loving husband and father who is acutely aware of the racial atrocities in the country. Like Clare, he wants to breakout and be free.
Another major asset is cinematography. Edu Grau (Suffragette, 2015; A Single Man, 2009) has crafted a stylish work with depth. His camera is spot-on when it’s needed to capture the expressions of the characters, especially between the two women as often their faces are the visual dialogues when none is spoken. And throughout the film, the jazz motif sets the mood that weaves through scenes.
What’s explicitly written in a book can only be shown with images on screen. Hall is effective in adding sequences that are illustrative in revealing Irene’s fears as she sees Brian and Clare becoming closer. And with the visual comes the sound. In the tea party at their home to honor the writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), Irene’s heavy breathing we hear as the camera follows her around the house lets us feel her restrained anger and unsettling spirit. The breaking of the tea pot and the conversations she has with Hugh who helps her pick up the pieces is most telling. These are apt additions as a gradual revealing leading to the end.
Like Larsen’s novella, the ending is open to interpretation. However, what Hall implies seems to be different from the author’s. Read the novella, watch the film. This is an intriguing pairing of exceptional storytelling in both art forms.
Passing is a nominee of the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It has been screening in the festival circuit and is a new release on Netflix starting November 10.
Diana Cheng is a freelance book and film reviewer. She blogs at Ripple Effects where this article first appeared.
Passing by Nella Larsen, (Penguin Classics, 2003), with an insightful Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading by Emily Bernard, 978-0142437278, 128pp., paperback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)