A photograph of Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in 1920s clothing in Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing. Image: COURTESY OF SUNDANCE INSTITUTE. PHOTO BY EDU GRA

Seated in the café of a posh hotel, Tessa Thompson’s Irene nervously powders her face. A light-skinned Black woman in a room of all-white patrons, she’s an interloper. Hidden beneath a huge hat, she’s keen to remain unnoticed. It’s alarming, then, to be recognised by an old school friend. Ruth Negga’s Clare walks over to her table. “It’s simply too lucky!” she exclaims.

In her new film Passing, writer-director Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s classic Harlem Renaissance novel, first published in 1929. The story sees two fair-skinned African-American women, Irene Redford and Clare Kendry, reunited after 12 years apart. Irene is shocked, disturbed and more than a little intrigued to discover that the now-blonde Clare has been living as a white woman, married to a white man. As Clare becomes more of a permanent fixture in Rene's life, and gets to know Rene’s Black husband, all sorts of buried feelings begin to rise to the surface.

Larsen was the biracial daughter of a West Indian father and a Danish mother. She grew up in Chicago and studied at an all-Black university in Tennessee before eventually settling in New York. She published two novels in short succession; 1928’s Quicksand, and Passing. Hall, a white English actress, has no obvious connection to the material. In fact, her mother, the opera singer Maria Ewing, is mixed-race, and fair-skinned enough to pass for white.

Unlike many other films that deal with the theme of ‘passing’ (think Elia Kazan’s Pinky, Raoul Walsh’s Band of Angels and Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life), Hall’s is not a melodrama. Instead of leaning into the genre’s traditional ‘tragic mulatto’ tropes, with their cathartic, tear-jerking endings, Hall holds back. The film’s most expressive element is its use of The Homeless Wanderer, a piano track by Ethiopian jazz musician Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (it is a coincidence, surely, that the same song also features in Garrett Bradley’s prison abolition documentary, Time). The rest of the film’s sensibility is one of crisp, deliberate restraint.

In Larsen’s novel, emotions are also repressed and internalised. Yet a third person narrator gives us access to Rene’s bubbling inner life. When Hall’s camera lingers on Clare’s bare back, exposed in a slinky gown, it’s only for the briefest of moments. Thompson has the difficult task of communicating the unexpressed. Blink and you’d miss the hint that something has been awakened in Rene. The book’s queer subtext is more explicit. Rene is dogged by “a sudden, inexplicable onrush of affectionate feeling” towards her “golden, fragrant, flaunting” friend. She is dazzled by Clare’s “whole torturing loveliness”. She notices her “caressing smile” and “astonishing eyes”, even finding that she weeps “attractively”. Their attraction is never quite consummated of course, though Clare looks back at Irene with a “groping and hopeless” quality.

Larsen paints a colourful portrait of Harlem at the height of the Roaring Twenties. Black skin is described alternately as “ivory”, “beige”, “olive”, “tea-coloured” and “mahogany”, with Larsen reminding the reader that Black identity is a broad church. Quite brilliantly, Hall shoots the film in black and white, an aesthetic choice that’s in keeping with its period setting. The shades of grey on screen also allow Hall to play with ideas of ambiguity and legibility; Clare, for example, is framed as both Black and white, depending on who is looking at her. When she meets Rene’s two sons, for example, who don’t know her background, she’s lit like a silent-era movie star. In another scene, Rene looks down at her two sons, the lustre of their dark skin emphasized as a flurry of cherry blossoms fall all around them like snow.

In an essay about Larsen’s Passing for The New York Times, Brit Bennett, whose 2020 novel The Vanishing Half was also about passing, described Clare Kennedy as “a tragic character who believes she is in a romp”. Negga’s livewire performance brings Clare crackling to life, giving her a husky, honey-and-whiskey soaked voice, and teasing, flirtatious gaze. Yet there is a weariness behind her eyes, too. In the film, she tells Rene she misses “the food, the jazz, the conversations, the dancing”. In Harlem, Rene’s home is a hub for Black culture. She’s friends with the community’s intellectuals, artists, politicians, musicians. Clare is hungry for a taste. Yet Rene envies Clare too, resentful of the way her friend is able to slip in and out of her world, seemingly at her own whim.

One scene takes place at a party. “Can you always tell the difference?” asks Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), a white writer and fixture of the Harlem scene. He’s transfixed by the blonde “princess” Clare, commanding on a dancefloor. “Hugh, stop talking to me like you’re writing a piece for the National Geographic!” she replies. “I can tell, same as you.” Both Larsen’s novel and Hall’s film are less interested in the anthropological question of who might pass than they are in why they might choose to do so. Once a person crosses the colour line, what happens, should they decide to cross back?

About a third of the way through the novel, during a conversation with her husband Brian, Rene offers a piercing insight about the ‘problem’ of passing. “It’s funny,” she says. “We disapprove of it, and at the same time we condone it. It excites our contempt, and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” A different writer might have portrayed Clare as a traitor, destined for cosmic punishment. Yet though things don’t exactly end well for Clare, Larsen’s novel has a curious, even cheeky conclusion. Clare’s untimely demise is described as “death by misadventure”. It’s this ambivalence about passing (and indeed, its consequences) that has meant the book, in all its complexity, has endured.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

  • Passing

    The Penguin English Library

  • Clare Kendry has severed all ties to her past. Elegant, fair-skinned and ambitious, she is married to a white man who is unaware of her African-American heritage. When she renews her acquaintance with her childhood friend Irene, who has not hidden her origins, both women are forced to reassess their marriages, the lies they have told - and to confront the secret fears they have buried within themselves. Nella Larsen's intense, taut and psychologically nuanced portrayal of lives and identities dangerously colliding established her as a leading writer of America's Harlem Renaissance.

    The Penguin English Library - collectable general readers' editions of the best fiction in English, from the eighteenth century to the end of the Second World War.

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