What “Passing” Can Still Teach Us About Identity

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A film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel dramatizes the mercurial and sometimes dangerous consequences of a person’s performance of self in the public.

Whenever talking about Nella Larsen’s classic 1929 novel, Passing, I often confuse the names of its main characters. When I mean to refer to the Black woman who grows up in Chicago’s South Side and then decides to pass as white, I rarely identify her as Clare. I regularly mistake her for Irene, the Black woman who is Clare’s childhood friend and who encounters Clare as an adult. I may just be bad with names, but I think that this mistake stems, in part, from the novel. Both light-skinned, raised in Chicago, and relatively wealthy, Clare and Irene are foils. They blur together even as each character distinguishes herself from the other.

The slipperiness of identity in Passing may owe something to Larsen’s own experiences. Born in 1891 in Chicago, she was the child of an Afro-Caribbean man and a Danish woman. After her father died, her white mother and stepfather raised Larsen in Denmark and the United States. After early experiences of discrimination in all-white neighborhoods, Larsen matriculated at the high school division of Fisk University, an all-Black institution in Tennessee, in 1909. In the mid-1910s, she moved to New York, working first as a nurse and then, in the 1920s, as a librarian in Harlem. There, she met such luminaries as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, who proclaimed Quicksand, her 1928 novel about a mixed-race woman, “the best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of [Charles] Chesnutt.” By the time she published Passing, she had lived in two different countries, in Black and white communities, and among the interracial milieu of the Harlem Renaissance. She personally knew the porousness of the color line, even though she also experienced firsthand the violence that comes with crossing it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, identity is fluid in her novels. This is true from the very beginning of Passing. In the first paragraph, Irene, now living in Harlem, holds a “long envelope of thin Italian paper” addressed in “almost illegible scrawl.” It is, she observes, “mysterious and slightly furtive…. A thin sly thing which bore no return address to betray the sender.” The reader does not find out until two paragraphs later that the letter was written by Clare. Why delay identifying a character around whom the novel revolves? The plot contrivance is that Clare does not include a return address because she does not want anyone to know that she is writing to Harlem, lest they discover that she is, in fact, Black. But the effect of this choice, which sticks out because Irene had “immediately known who its sender was,” is that readers first encounter Clare as an unknown. Her efforts to maintain an illusion of genealogy and race, ultimately, make her confounding to readers.

Clare’s passing does not only throw her racial identity into flux. It also undermines other assumptions about her based upon her upbringing as a Black woman. Two years after Irene sees Clare in Chicago during a visit home, Clare writes, in the letter that Irene eventually opens, “For I am lonely, so lonely…[I] cannot help longing to be with you again, as I have never longed for anything before.” She is, ostensibly, describing a desire to see Irene again as a means of returning to Black society. And yet the letter bears romantic undertones. Does Clare want to be Irene’s friend or her lover? This question only becomes harder to answer as Clare develops a flirtatious relationship with Irene’s husband. Does Clare want to sleep with Irene or does she want to sleep with Irene’s husband as a means of becoming Irene? The novel does not provide definitive answers to these questions so much as raise them. The act of passing, in Larsen’s novel, shows us that the lines between straight and queer, Black and white, are fuzzy at best.

Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Passing, starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, lets this uncertainty guide its style. Shot in black and white, the film opens onto a blurry shot scored with unidentifiable noises. The audio sharpens into footsteps, a car horn, and the conversation of passersby as the lens focuses on shoes walking down a Chicago sidewalk. The camera follows two white women into a store, where one explains that she has never “met a colored who didn’t work for us” as she contemplates buying a Black doll for her child. When one of them drops the doll, a woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat hung so low that her eyes are not visible picks it up. In the next shot, her brim becomes semitransparent, through which her eyes are, unmistakably, Tessa Thompson’s. Is Thompson’s character passing at this moment or not? This is the kind of uncertainty that Hall’s film is steeped in.

Indeterminacy gives way to the surreal and perhaps even to horror. After leaving the store, Thompson fans herself as her eyes widen. A man lies passed out on the pavement. Thompson then goes to the dining room of the Drayton Hotel, sits down at a table, and makes eye contact with a blond Ruth Negga. Her gaze lingers for so long that something seems amiss. Negga stands up, Thompson tries to hurry out, and Negga intercepts her. “Pardon me,” Negga says. “I don’t mean to stare. But I think I know you.” Thompson responds, “I’m afraid you’re mistaken.” Negga replies, “No, of course I know you, Reenie. Don’t you know me?” The camera cuts back-and-forth between the two as the revelation sinks in. “Clare?” Irene (played by Thompson) asks. Negga, in the role of Clare, smiles. They leave the dining room for Clare’s hotel room, where she explains that she has been passing as white for years. She assumes Irene has been too, but Irene explains that she has not; she married a doctor and lives in Harlem. As they speak, the fear suffusing the earlier scenes makes sense: Irene was temporarily passing as white at the Drayton, and she was worried about being discovered.

This fear is not unwarranted. After Clare’s husband, played by Alexander Skarsgard, enters the hotel room, he explains that he “hate[s]” Black people because of their “robbing” and “killing.” Should he ever discover that Clare is Black, the scene implies, she will lose her marriage, her wealth, and the life she has built. But the price of that life is high. Her husband remarks that his hatred is second only to that of Clare, who “won’t have them near her, not even as a maid.” Passing provides tenuous privilege, the consequence of which is the anxiety of hypervigilance, isolation from others, and the immorality of participating in anti-Blackness.

Unsurprisingly, Clare overcomes her fear that spending time among Black people will reveal her race and reunites with Irene in Harlem, where the consequences of being discovered lend the film its suspense. After Clare returns to New York, Irene writes her the letter without the return address: “I wouldn’t feel this wild desire if I hadn’t seen you.” What, exactly, does Clare want? At times, it seems that Clare just wants to socialize with Black people, since she thoroughly enjoys conversing with Irene’s maid and attending a Negro League fundraiser. At other times, Clare seems to want Irene and Irene seems to reciprocate; in one scene, Irene gazes at Clare’s exposed back and reaches out to hold her hand, and Clare stares longingly at Irene until the two are interrupted by Irene’s husband, André Holland’s Brian. And at other times, Clare seems to want to trade places with Irene: Between sentences valorizing Irene’s life, Clare flirts with Irene’s husband, dancing with him in one scene and whispering into his ear in another. “We’re all of us passing for something or other,” Irene says midway through the movie. Whether Irene is passing for straight, Clare is passing for white, or Brian is passing for a faithful husband remains unknown. This unknowability lends the film its erotic charge, but also its horror: Punishment might await these characters, no matter which secret is disclosed first.

In this way, the film’s exploration of identity’s performance illustrates that there are very real consequences to being identified. Though Irene tries to raise her middle-class children in a bubble of safety, Brian tells her that their eldest son has been addressed with a slur. Shortly thereafter, Brian relates a lynching in Little Rock to prepare him for the world in which he will become an adult. When their son asks why Black people are lynched, Brian responds, “because they hate us.” Irene cuts the conversation short. Later, when their son recounts the lynching to Irene in gruesome detail, a literal pot boils over. Try as Irene might to protect her children, and try as Clare might to pass as white, the film repeatedly reminds that racist violence awaits those who are seen as Black. Identity may be a performance, but it is one with material consequences.

As Hall’s film portrays in the above scene and throughout, racism makes Black motherhood especially difficult. Early in Passing, Clare explains that when she was pregnant, she worried that her children would “come out dark.” This fear seems to result from the potential that it might end her marriage, but it likely also results from the possible violence that might ensue should her racist husband discover that he has been married to a Black woman and had fathered a Black child. “Being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world,” Clare tells Irene at one point. Irene replies, “It is also the most responsible.” As Irene’s argument with her husband about whether to tell their children about lynching makes clear, that responsibility is the difficult work of trying to make one’s children and oneself safe in a world replete with anti-Black violence.

The achievement of Hall’s film lies not in its portrayal of the horror that people may not be as they seem but in suffusing each scene with the vulnerabilities that come with being correctly identified as Black, as woman, as mother. Hall’s adaptation shares this with Larsen’s novels. As Mary Helen Washington wrote in her 1987 anthology of Black women writers, Invented Lives, Larsen “has shown us that behind the carefully manicured exterior, behind the appearance of security is a woman who hears the beating of her wings against a walled prison.” Both Clare and Irene live in a prison, partially of their own making, but mostly not. They share many of the same burdens and the same violences.

If I confuse Clare and Irene in conversations, it is not only because they are united in this vulnerability but also because they are united in their yearning. Both desire lives free from the everyday and spectacular violence of racism and sexism, to say nothing of their potential desire for each other and the possible assaults they could endure for being queer. That Hall’s adaptation of Larsen’s novel captures both their hopes and their fears is a testament to the relevance of these characters today. Clare’s method of passing and Irene’s method of ignoring may not be functional or laudable means of forging new lives, but their hopes are.

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