The Real Surprise of ‘Passing’: A Focus on Black Women’s Inner Lives
Through the new play “Passing,” Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), the light-browed, upper-middle-class protagonist, offers a unique insight into her psyche when she tells her friend Hugh, “We are. We’re all passing by, for something or the other,” and say, “Aren’t we?”
So far, Irene has successfully maintained her cover as both a respectable wife and a proud African American woman. But when Hugh (Bill Camp) challenges her by asking why she doesn’t pass up for blondes like her childhood friend, Claire Kendrie (Ruth Negga), her response is a revelation that shocked me almost as much. Gave as much as he did.
“Who says I’m not?” She steps back.
In that moment, I realized I had surfaced the B-plot of Nella Larson’s 1929 novel, “Passing,” in writer-director Rebecca Hall’s adaptation, giving us a story that’s so rare in Hollywood. . Today: The inner world of a black woman’s mind.
When I teach Larson’s novel to my graduate students, I usually begin with the obvious: its racist plot and the way Claire finds refuge from racism by identifying as white, with only her black family and community. To be sadly separated from
But I mainly teach “passing” what I think is the real central conflict of the novel: the desire and paranoia of a same-sex woman who seems to overtake Irene, and Larson’s story line for that matter, Claire. as a result of his unrelenting relationship with. In a 1986 essay on Larson’s novel, critic Deborah E. McDowell explained why this craving had to be shown secondary to the emphasis on the breed. “The idea of bringing a sexual attraction to full expression between two women,” he wrote, was “too dangerous for a trick” in 1929. Instead, “Larson covers the subplot of Irene’s development if the unnamed and unintentional desire for Claire in the vault and the familiar plot of racial passing.”
Rather than explore ways for Irene to get into her sexuality, racial passing – at the height of segregation in America – was considered a far more urgent and thus more traditional subject than the inner lives of black women. As a consequence, Larson’s novel also ended, eventually “taking the form of an act with meaning,” McDowell concluded.
Visually, Hall compensates for the novel’s restraint through stealthy glances, flirtatious phrases, and the touch and kiss between Claire and Irene. As Irene’s tension rises, the film externalizes it through other symbols: a loud-ticking grandfather clock, a pot of boiling water, and even she attends an afternoon social event at her home. Teapot breaks. In these allusions, we see both Irene’s desire to break free from the delusions of middle-class domesticity and heterosexuality she carries, as well as the threat to Irene’s sense of control from Claire’s presence.
But, to exclude Irene’s inner thoughts and her sublime identity, the film makes what is suggested in the novel more explicit. For example, Irene’s confession to Hugh never actually occurs in the book. Hall chose to make the moment better, she explained in a video for Vanity Fair, because she wanted to “uncover the latent homosexuality and power dynamics” underlying their shared mystery.
But all in all that film does very well – its subtle swing jazz score; Its beautiful black and white montage for photographers Gordon Parks and Carrie May Weems; And the delightful cat-and-mouse performance by Thompson and Negga—it intentionally limits how much access we have to Irene. Such restrictions, having caught a glimpse of Irene’s full personality, further reminded me of how certain stories about African American female sexuality and subjectivity have been told on the big screen.
In other words, at this time, when black actors are being celebrated and validated like never before, what’s the point of investing in films that take us beyond an entirely racist or sexist gaze and into their innermost thoughts? Are?
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To this day, such layered depictions are mainly found in the indie realm, as Kathleen Collins recently restored “Losing Ground” in 1982; Cheryl Dunne’s 1997 autobiography, “The Watermelon Woman”; and Ava DuVernay’s 2010 “I Will Follow You.” These films not only focus on the struggle of black women to understand themselves as sexual or spiritual beings in the world – but they do so by accepting Blackness as the only marker of their identity.
“Passing” reminds us of the need for movies that take us from the surface – by skin and sight – and revel in the worlds that black women create for themselves beyond the sight of others.
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