Harlem Renaissance Era Commentary on Race Remains Relevant

By mantunes

There’s an old word game I love to play that challenges you to grasp the slipperiness of the English language. The premise is to identify as many contronyms as you can possibly name. A contronym is basically a word that can mean it’s own opposite, usually depending on the context. Popular contenders include: cleave; sanction; oversight; transparent; refrain. A new word has just joined my arsenal: black. Black, in the electro-magnetic and cinematographic sense, is the absence of color. However, black, as a social construct, is the presence of it.

Passing, Rebecca Hall’s screen adaptation of Nella Larson’s nearly forgotten but unquestionable gem of the Harlem Renaissance, plays on this duality in the meaning of the word black. The first and most noticeable aspect of the movie is Hall’s choice of a monochromatic color palette. Rather than being a purely aesthetic or atmospheric choice, the use of black and white plays into the central conflict that drives the movie. In a time where race is so central to identity and defines how one is able to participate in society, what is to be done with those who can “pass,” that is travel freely between those two worlds. This theme has increasing relevance today, where debates about race have only managed to become starker.

Passing lets the audience in on the story of Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), two childhood friends who reunite in 1920s New York City. Both are born with ambiguous racial features, allowing them the rare choice to live as either a White woman or a Black woman, and to transition between those two statuses when needed to. Irene, or “Reenie,” chooses to primarily present as Black, marrying into an upper middle class family in Harlem, while Clare chooses to present as White, finding herself a White businessman for a husband who does not know of her background (or, if he suspects, willfully ignores it). A chance encounter in a hotel cafe brings these two childhood friends back together, offering them the chance to see how the other side has fared with their choice. 

Irene, whose name derives from the word “peace,” is visibly self-conscious about this ability she has. The movie opens with Irene making use of passing to access White-only spaces like a high-end toy store in midtown Manhattan, a place she otherwise would be excluded from, or at least made to feel unwelcome. However, this act of passing comes with a price for Irene. Though she passes selectively, she lives in mortal fear of being “caught.” It is no coincidence then that the person who “catches” her is Clare, who knows all too well how to pass and to pass with determination.

Clare, whose name has associations with brightness and light, exudes a level of confidence in White society that Irene seems to lack. Though she too lives on the knife’s edge, Clare overplays her Whiteness, whether it is illegally ordering alcohol from hotel room service or backing up her husband’s racist attitudes, hoping that this savoir faire will not allow anyone to become any wiser. Still, Clare yearns for the culture of Black society, the one she grew up in. Her refusal to hire any Black servants means she cannot partake in the cuisine of her childhood, and the facade she maintains for her husband prevents her from attending the raucous jazz parties that defined the era, unless she is separated from her husband while he is on business. In fact, Clare has become so White that she relies on Irene to act as her guide to passing back into Black society, something Irene is not entirely comfortable with. Clare’s presence in Irene’s life is not only a reminder of the life Irene passed upon, but it is also an active disturbance to the peace that Irene desperately tries to maintain in her home and her social circles. 

Passing is a morality play about lying, a sin through which all other sins flow. Clare’s life, defined by her volitional participation in passing, is entirely constructed on a lie, which shields her from the violence and indignity pressed upon Black people but which also makes her a perpetrator of it. Irene also partakes in lying as she tries to actively prevent the news of rampant lynchings from being discussed with her children in the house and tries to persuade her husband to move the family abroad to escape the situation in the United States. However, Irene is utterly powerless in controlling what goes on outside her household, like when one of her son’s is called a racial slur by a classmate. Passing impresses upon us the corrosive power of lying and how it inevitably culminates in tragedy.

The story Larsen constructed, which I read two summers ago at the height of the BLM protests, is excellent. What Hall’s adaptation adds to the book, however, is a level of visualness that brings these tensions into stark relief, something that Larsen can only do through written and descriptive language. The black and white cinematography allows the audience to suspend disbelief just enough so that they are not constantly wondering if anyone would actually believe that these two actors could pass for either race—a question I think high definition color would have caused to be more of a distraction for the film. Still, there is enough on screen that you are not totally sold either. The film is also replete with brilliant shots of Clare basking in sunlight, allowing her physical Whiteness to come into full view, while Irene often lurks in the shadows of New York City and her own house. Because of the script’s embrace of the dialogue-driven nature of a stage play, there are many set pieces where Clare and Irene sit side-by-side, talking and where you can see how almost indistinguishable the two are. 

I cannot deign to give the movie a grade or a number of stars. Passing shines in many places, and its tight length (clocking in at 98 minutes) means there is never a moment for the movie to navel-gaze or drag. The use of a few piano riffs and no complete score bolster the film’s austere style. It’s unique shooting format and sound editing, however, requires in-person viewing at a movie theater. In a world where so much demands our attention, from peak TV to the ever-growing stack of books on your night stand, all I can tell you is whether a movie is worth your time or not. Passing is definitely worth your time.