Nella Larsen’s classic Passing is officially on the silver screen via Netflix telling the story of an ill-fated friendship between two fair-skinned Black women in 1920s Harlem that feels threatened with one woman assuming a White racial identity to fit in a racist society.
Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, and Alexander Skarsgård star in the film set in the Roaring Twenties amid the Harlem Renaissance, with Rebecca Hall making her directorial debut. Shot in black-and-white, the film emphasizes those colors in the racial context and how they threaten the lives of Tessa Thompson’s Irene Redfield and Ruth Negga’s Clare Kendry Bellew.
The story focuses on Irene and Clare reconnecting after they were separated as teenagers when Clare was sent away to live with her aunts after her father died. Living with her aunts, Clare learned how to pass as White and continued to do so in her marriage to international banker John Bellew while raising their daughter destined for boarding school in Switzerland. Irene is shocked Clare is living as a White woman, but she struggles with wondering what her life would be like if she passed. She’s decided to stay in Black Harlem with her Black family, her doctor husband Brian Redfield and their two sons. As both women wonder if the grass is greener on the other side, they realize the danger Clare has put herself in pretending to be what she’s not.
Tessa Thompson plays Irene Redfield, the main character we see struggle with the emotions of letting this new version of Clare back into her life. Clare was just a forgettable childhood friend when Irene runs into her at a fancy Chicago hotel. To escape scorching temperatures, Irene seeks refuge there, depending on her fair skin to pass as White, a tactic that works. It turns out Clare is passing as well but full-time.
Ruth Negga plays Clare Kendry Bellew, a Black woman hiding behind the visage of a White woman with her hard-to-miss dyed blonde hair and piled-on foundation to make her skin paler. When she spots Irene in the hotel’s tearoom, she sees an opportunity to connect with the Black community that she alienated long ago in an effort to forever live in carefree glamour. Except she knows she cannot be that carefree pretending to be White, yet she assumes the risk and sees if Irene could help her feel less lonely.
While the book spaces their run-in and their meeting with Clare’s husband, the film puts the two defining events together. Once Irene realizes she is talking to Clare, they head to Clare’s room to talk more in-depth about their lives thus far. In the room, Clare explains her life and entices Irene to start passing. She even mentions how pregnancy was so hard on her in fear her daughter would come out dark-skinned and her raising her daughter now in hopes she never finds out her ethnicity. Irene rebuffs, saying her husband is dark-skinned and so are her two boys. Clare apologizes, not realizing that her fellow fair-skinned friend did not take the same route. Then Clare’s husband, John Bellew, played by Alexander Skarsgård, comes into the room.
John calls Clare “Nig,” a shortened nickname from the n-word he bestowed upon her due to her tan. He claims Clare was “lily white” when they got married, but she’s been darkening ever since. To add insult to injury, he spews hate for Blacks and says Clare hates them even more. This, of course, makes Irene uncomfortable. She tries to get more answers for the root of this hate like if they know any Blacks, and the answers in the negative don’t satisfy Irene. She gets up and leaves.
André Holland plays Dr. Brian Redfield, Irene’s husband, who at first doesn’t want his wife to spend time with Clare because of the incident at the hotel. The conversation comes up again due to a letter from Clare that Irene doesn’t want to open. Brian opens it instead and mocks Clare’s cries of loneliness written on paper. But a few weeks later, Clare shows up at the Redfield residence in Black Harlem wondering why her letter went unanswered. There, Irene and Brian are forced to deal with Clare.
Though he did not want anything to do with Clare, Brian seems smitten with the charismatic Clare, who has heads turning everywhere she goes with the Redfields. Clare can finally be the socialite she wants to be since she’s with the Black elite and their White counterparts. Brian, on the other hand, can forget about his troubles of reading about lynchings in the South and educating his sons about the hatred toward their skin color. He wants to move out of the country to not be discriminated against for his race, but the idea hangs over him and Irene. To his wife, he seems unhappy in general, especially with Irene’s decision to avoid the lynching news at home, wanting to keep the boys innocent. With Clare, Brian looks like his frown has been turned upside down.
The pressure of dealing with Clare the “princess”—what White author Hugh Wentworth, played by Bill Camp, calls her at the social functions—gets to Irene, who confides in Hugh when Brian dances and converses with Clare. We first meet Hugh at a dance in a Cotton Club-like setting where Irene invites Clare for the first time. Clare is dancing with every Black man like Hugh’s White wife, and Hugh and Irene talk about exoticism, the reason these White women want to dance with Black men. Then he picks up that Clare is passing, as Irene doesn’t expressly say it, but they talk about why someone would pass. In another scene, when Irene is already distraught over her emotions of having Clare in her life, Hugh lies to protect Irene when she drops a porcelain teakettle. The disturbance stops the party momentarily, with Clare staring at Irene, taking a break from her conversation with Brian and other partygoers.
The more frustrated Clare becomes, the more depressed she is. While out shopping with her friend Felise, who in the book is described as having “golden” skin and “curly black Negro hair” and is played by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Irene bumps into John. He outstretches his hand, but Irene refuses and walks off. She tells Felise she met him the only time she passed as White. The details of Clare’s husband are omitted. But Irene knows that the jig is up for not only her but for Clare.
The ending that seems as rushed in the film as it is in the book shows the dire consequences following Clare at all times, and how she finally is found out by her husband, and that discovery leads to her demise. Irene opens the window moments before to smoke a cigarette when John is screaming to see his wife. Partygoers try to tell John his wife wouldn’t be there, but John sees “Nig” and goes after her. Clare positions herself in front of the window beside Irene as protection, but she edges even closer to the window. As John lunges toward Clare, Irene puts her arm across Clare’s waist. What looks like more protection also looks like a nudge. Either way, Clare tumbles stories down to her death. Clare is frozen while everyone else rushes outside. Having Clare dead in the snow is fitting; she was passing for White and now dies in a blanket of whiteness. The image of her body in the snow is the final shot from higher dimensions.
Ruth Negga plays Clare perfectly. From the piercing stares at Irene to the false upbeat attitude she exudes, Ruth gives Clare that mystery and that agitation the character feels in her life as a fake White woman alienating herself from her true identity, her true community. The first time we meet her reflects the scene of the book where Clare is staring at Irene. Seeing Clare onscreen compared to her description in the book is striking with the blonde hair and overdone face. Then, she calling Irene a nickname that sounds like it was bestowed upon her by Black folks shows an exuberant Clare who’s been looking for an outlet to her loneliness. The way Clare’s comfort and discomfort passes across Ruth’s facial expressions exhibits the emotional depth of not only pretending to be something you’re not, but feeling the pressure to pretend to be safe and still not feel safe in an era where Black people could not freely move around.
On the flip side, Tessa Thompson carries the Clare-induced uncertainty and anxiety in her facial features as Irene. Irene is scared she is going to lose her husband to Clare, her stature as a socialite to Clare, and her boys’ affection to Clare. Moments filled with these feelings in the film stick out, for example, with the boys, asking for Clare because Brian told them she’d be home. Irene is upset that Brian would tell them Clare would be there, seeing the excitement rev her family up so much for Clare, not her. In another scene, Clare befriends Zulena, the Redfields’ maid played by Ashley Ware Jenkins, and they bask in the wintry sunshine. Irene has to ask Zu a few times to take her bag of groceries when she walks in. Then, Irene heads upstairs with Clare following behind her. She tends to a flowerpot on her windowsill, but it falls from the second-story window and breaks outside. Irene is already feeling like things are breaking apart, but she has to pretend everything is alright to make sure Clare is comfortable.
Internet reaction shows some criticism over biracial actresses Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga playing the characters since for today’s standards they appear Black, and the characters are supposed to be fair enough to appear White. Others argue that the actresses’ complexions would’ve passed the brown paper bag test and allow them to pass as White. Either way, both the actresses performed superbly with showing the intricacies of race for Black women in particular who want to live their best lives in America. Though the story reflects a contemporary time from a century ago, the hardships remain today.
The film’s cast will be featured on Netflix Book Club‘s “But Have You Read the Book?” that will start streaming Nov. 16 on Netflix’s YouTube and Facebook channels and be hosted by Orange Is the New Black actress Uzo Aduba.