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Notes On Passing

Rebecca Hall’s film Passing (Netflix) is a passion project, born of many people’s commitment to Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. We share this attachment to Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance classic. In the spirit of its protagonists’ epistolary exchange, our collaboration takes the form of a dialogue, which follows the novel’s three-part structure.


Larsen’s Passing tells the Jazz Age story of two childhood friends, both with phenotypically similar fair skin, whose lives unfold on opposite sides of the Jim Crow color line. Following family upheaval, Clare Kendry (played in the movie by Ruth Negga) decides to pass as white; Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) marries a Black MD, moves to Harlem, and becomes a well-manicured icon of the bourgeois New Negro Woman. When the two later run into each other, their renewed friendship unsettles their carefully curated lives.

In this exchange, we pose questions about the symbolic politics of Hall’s choices as a filmmaker. We critique the film’s opening scene as a surprising departure, projecting a white point of view. Then, we debate how Hall imagines the co-protagonists. In the film, both Irene and Clare seem less complex, less ironically drawn. In general, we felt challenged by the trade-offs necessary to translate a deeply psychological novel into visual storytelling: e.g., the preponderance of mirrors that portray (and blur) unsteady binaries of gender, race, and desire.

We nonetheless salute Hall’s doubling down on Clare and Irene’s implicit homoerotic romance. Finally, we discuss the depiction of Larsen’s famously ambiguous ending. Hall is partially faithful to it, but that fidelity has its limitations. Ultimately, we suggest that the film telegraphs a politics of white allyship in re-creating a novel about the color line, especially in terms of Hall’s brave casting choices.

Part I: Encounter (First Impression)

Lisa: The novel begins with Irene reading a letter from Clare—a moment that triggers a series of reflections on her childhood friend. But the film opens with matronly white women shopping in a toy store.

From that moment, I knew I would spend the entire hour and thirty-seven minutes assessing whether the film did justice to a novel I think is pretty damn perfect. So, Hall’s scene seems like egregious overwriting. Opening with a slur about a Black doll displaces Irene from her own experience.

Tavi: And interpellates the viewer as white.

I agree, the opening scene is problematic: Irene kneels and hands over the offensive doll to a Karen, face hidden behind her cloche to avoid scrutiny—or detection. As Dr. Karla Holloway said in a webinar on the film, “That hat is doing a lot of work!”

Lisa: Hall also removes Larsen’s finely-wrought narrative bookends of father’s and daughter’s senseless deaths.

Part of what Irene remembers in the novel is Clare’s downwardly-mobile biracial father, Bob Kendry, whose white father seduced and abandoned a Black woman, Clare’s mother, who is long dead. When Bob dies in a “silly saloon fight,” young Clare moves in with his racist white sisters and becomes “the help.”

Hall deletes this genealogy, making Clare a free radical. This change exemplifies the film’s erasure of Clare’s and Irene’s family connections, which flattens Larsen’s commentary on race. Hall dissolves the embodied ironies these characters negotiate by removing them from their social worlds—not just from family but also from history and their intersecting double-binds for Black subjects. Without the backstory, Clare’s desire to return to Harlem seems enthusiastic at best, fetishistic at worst.

Part II: Re-Encounter (Mirrors & Desire)

Tavi: Instead of genealogy, we have the optics of race. There are a lot of mirrors in Hall’s Passing. Characters are doubled in them, spatial orientation is reversed when we pan right or left. I suppose the motif is inescapable. Clare and Irene are doubles, foils, in fact.

The optometry of race is therefore the film’s central metaphor.

But the optics of Blackness and its reflection, whiteness, are not central to the novel. Larsen’s Passing centers on scenes of reading, starting with Irene’s opening Clare’s letter. Racial signification operates as textual interpretation, coding and decoding—often wrongly, as “passing” figures evade naive interpreters.

One example: in the film, the Carl Van Vechten character watches Clare dancing at the Negro Welfare League gala and wonders who the white woman is. Irene tells him, “things aren’t always what they seem.”

The jump from page to screen flattens textual ambiguity in service of visual storytelling, presenting race as a matter of appearances, not an embodied social performance.

In short, Hall erects a hall of mirrors, not only to scry Clare and Irene’s romance, but also for the spectator to scry their own “racial” reflection.

Lisa: The loss of rhetorical irony is unsurprising, given the medium, but I found myself missing Larsen’s wit and the interpretive vertigo her prose induces.

Tavi: Yes! Larsen’s Passing is a chimera—noir potboiler, racial satire, psychological thriller. Irene’s paranoid personality drives the plot to its devastating conclusion.

Lisa: I read Larsen’s Irene as anxious, not paranoid—it’s impossible to know the truth of her perceptions.

And the impossibility of knowing the truth of perception—and hence of race, which is a matter of perception but importantly not only that—is the point of the novel.

I agree with you about the ways in which Irene’s inner life—her logic, her desires, her anxieties—impels the plot trajectory that makes the end inevitable.

But I think that Larsen’s point—and here’s one of my arguments with Hall’s adaptation—is that Irene’s inner life does not belong to her as an individual so much as to the cultural types she lives in relation to, especially the New Negro woman.

The conclusion is wrought by the impossibility of resolving the conflicts baked into this cultural model of Black femininity. The New Negro woman’s scripted desires are riven with paradox: chastely maternal, ambitiously self-sacrificing, and aggressively self-regulated—want all the right things, but not too much. Which is to say: want to be Black, but embrace an American identity defined by white middle-class values.

Tavi: In the novel, Clare and Irene’s erotic triangle with Irene’s husband Brian tells a different story: about taboo desires, illicit identifications, racial liminality.

The film redoubles Larsen’s Sapphic subtext, first pointed out by Deborah McDowell. It oozes conflicted homoeroticism, as when Irene watches Clare dancing with Brian and declares one can be drawn to something (or someone!) that seems “repugnant.” A moment later, Irene reaches for Clare’s arm; they clasp tight; Brian returns; Irene pulls away.

Each protagonist navigates the relays of visual desire and the racial codes that interpret that desire: Irene is matronly insecurity and bourgeois anxiety, Clare a noir femme fatale, a Hitchcock blonde. Hall inserts these tropes, framing them with a retro 4:3 aspect ratio.

The jump to classic Hollywood storytelling also precludes Irene’s increasingly frenzied interior monologue. Her mind spins faster as the novel builds to a climax. But Hall struggles to convey Irene’s increasingly troubled mind. The screenplay rigorously avoids VO. Instead, it represents Irene’s anxiety, listlessness, and malaise by having her take pills and nap a lot. (Which is not in the novel.)

What I’m saying is, the novel is basically unfilmable.

Lisa: Given that, Hall deserves a lot of credit for her visually stunning, thoroughly watchable interpretation.

But I still want to talk about the reduction of character foils and Larsen’s sociopolitical commentary. In the novel, every character is a foil for another—not just Irene/Clare, but also Irene/Brian, Brian/Clare, Clare’s biracial father/Clare’s white husband, etc.

Larsen’s point, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that these ironic distinctions matter a great deal: they are the difference between life and death for us all, not just Clare and Irene. For all of this family resemblance, people get differently punished for living out the conflicts of their desires.

Tavi:  Yes, and because of Irene’s conflicted allegiance to both upright Black femininity and bourgeois values, she is an unreliable focal character—in the film as in the novel.

The best example is before the gala. Coming downstairs, Irene spies Brian and Clare whispering to each other, mere inches apart, gazing into each other’s eyes. But the image is revealed as foreshortening; the supposed philanderers are talking normally, several feet apart. So, Hall reveals Irene’s unreliability by subtly showing the unreliability of the diegesis. That coup d’oeil is marvelous, and faithful to the novel’s perspective, Irene’s “unseeing eyes.”

But on the other hand, Irene and Brian’s marriage is a sentimental throwback in the film.

Lisa: 100% yes to reducing the novel’s ambiguity about Brian and Clare. I was especially sad to lose the ambiguity surrounding Brian’s sexuality. In the book, his “restlessness” and “queer” desire to move to Brazil raise questions about his sexuality in Irene’s (and the reader’s) eyes.

I found the film’s Brian to be more vividly drawn—which didn’t bother me, but it drove the narrative into predictable genres.

Tavi: Hence the bedroom melodrama.

Lisa: Yes!That slippage elides the politics of respectability that both Larsen and her characters must confront: there is no sex in the novel because none of these individuals can afford to have sex. That’s one function of the lynching anecdote: to stress how easily the policing of Black desire leads to fatal punishment.

Part III: Finale (White Allyship?)

Tavi: Before watching, I wondered how Hall would present the fatal scene. During a Harlem cocktail party for the New Negro elite, Clare’s husband bursts in. In one moment, Clare stands next to Irene by an open casement window; in the next instant, she falls to her death.

In the film, there’s a rapid cut-away shot, a close up of Irene’s arm protectively holding (pushing?) Clare around the waist, then the empty window. So Hall preserves the ambiguity of who (or what) causes Clare’s fall. The ending raises the question: Is Hall too faithful to the source material?

Lisa: Faithful to the final dynamic between Irene and Clare, perhaps. But Clare’s husband’s animalistic “moan” is silenced to oddly dispassionate anger (I think? Who knows!). More importantly, the Roaring Twenties’ racial caste system gets off the hook. The film reduces Clare’s death to a triangular whodunnit: Irene? Bellew? In Larsen’s novel, Clare’s (down) fall is symbolic punishment for transgressing the color line. Her “death by misadventure” is not a question of individual accountability or choice: society at large kills Clare.

Tavi: Speaking of racial hegemony and its consequences: A friend of mine, a philosopher who identifies as Black, wondered whether Larsen would be as popular “if she weren’t Black.” Watching Passing provoked this question in reverse: How would the film be different if the writer/director were Black?

Hall’s mixed ancestry has been discussed widely, as has the lead actresses’ dedication to the project, without which the film wouldn’t have been made.

Lisa: It all comes back to desire! And how much desire is always already racialized, in poignantly ironic ways.

Tavi: Indeed. And in casting Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, Hall made a bold choice. Some viewers insist that Thompson and Negga could never pass as white. The suspension of disbelief is too much for them.

This criticism recapitulates the obsession with racial purity and erotic fantasies of its admixture that saturates Passing itself. Not to mention that Hall’s black-and-white palette mitigates and anticipates the colorism inherent in the casting critique.

To expect all-but-white actresses to play these roles obeys the violent logic of racial segregation and its sorry cinematic history. Films like Show Boat (1951), Imitation of Life (1959), and West Side Story (1961) cast white or non-Black actresses (Ava Gardner, Susan Kohner, and Natalie Wood, respectively) to play “biracial or “ethnic” characters. (The remake of West Side Story cast authentic Latinx actors!)

Hall resists this racist legacy, consistent with the novel’s theme: that Blackness and whiteness are not “pure” constructs, but curated performances that have little basis in social or biological or psychological fact.

The casting choice therefore holds another mirror up to the audience: If you dismiss Thompson and Negga as “too Black” to play “all-but-white,” your racial prism sees only the color line. But Passing is about the swirl, atmospheric grays rich with shadow or oversaturated with light.

Octavio R. González is the author of Misfit Modernism (recently out in paperback), and the poetry collection The Book of Ours. A Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University at Buffalo this academic year (2021–22), he is associate professor of English and creative writing at Wellesley College. You can find him on Twitter (@TaviRGonzalez) and Instagram (@distracteddoodling). 

Lisa Mendelman is the author of Modern Sentimentalism (Oxford UP, 2019), which chronicles the emotional history of the modern woman and the corollary reinvention of sentimentalism in US interwar fiction. She is a 2021-2022 NEH Research Fellow at The Huntington Library and Assistant Professor of English and Digital Humanities at Menlo College. You can find her on Twitter (@LisaMendelman).

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