Halfway through the new drama “Passing”, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), the upper-middle-class protagonist with light brown skin, offers a unique glimpse into her psyche when she tells her friend Hugh, “We are. , all of us, passing for something or the other ”, and adds:“ Is not it?
So far, Irene has managed to maintain her cover as a respectable wife and proud African American woman. But when Hugh (Bill Camp) challenges her by asking her why she doesn’t come across as white like her biracial childhood friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), her response is a revelation, surprising me almost as much as him.
“Who can say I’m not?” She retorts.
At that point, I realized that what I had considered Plot B of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel “Passing” had surfaced in writer-director Rebecca Hall’s adaptation, We offering a narrative that remains too rare in Hollywood. today: the inner world of a black woman’s mind.
When I teach Larsen’s novel to my undergraduates, I usually start with the obvious: its racial plot and how Clare finds refuge from racism by identifying as white, only to be tragically alienated from her family. and its black community.
But I mainly teach “Getting through” through what I think is the real central conflict of the novel: same-sex female desire and the paranoia that begins to invade Irene, and for that matter Larsen’s story, due to his unfulfilled relationship with Clare. In a 1986 essay on Larsen’s novel, reviewer Deborah E. McDowell explained why this desire must appear secondary to the emphasis on race. “The idea of fully expressing the sexual attraction between two women,” she wrote, was “too dangerous a move” in 1929. Instead, “Larsen enveloped the subplot with the desire to ‘Irene to expand if unnamed and unrecognized for Clare in the vault. and familiar plot of racial crossing.
Rather than exploring the ways in which Irene enters into her sexuality, the racial shift – at the height of segregation in America – was seen as a much more pressing and therefore more conventional theme than that of the inner lives of black women. As a result, Larsen’s novel eventually passed as well, ultimately taking “the form of the act that it involves,” McDowell concluded.
Visually, Hall compensates for the novel’s restraint with stolen looks, flirtatious phrases, and lingering hugs and kisses between Clare and Irene. As Irene’s tension builds, the film exteriorizes her through other symbols: a grandfather clock that makes a loud ticking, a pot of boiling water, and even its breaking. a teapot during a midday evening in his house. In these allusions, we see both Irene’s desire to break free from the illusion of middle-class domesticity and heterosexuality that she portrays, as well as the threat that Clare’s presence poses to Irene’s sense of control.
But, to exteriorize Irene’s inner thoughts and her sublimated identity, the film makes what is suggested in the novel much more explicit. For example, Irene’s confession to Hugh never actually occurs in the book. Hall chose to amplify this moment, she explained in a video for Vanity Fair, because she wanted to “highlight the latent homosexuality and power dynamics” behind their shared secret.
But for all this film does it very well – its subtle jazz swing score; his beautiful black and white montages reminiscent of photographers Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems; and the delightful cat and mouse performances of Thompson and Negga – this deliberately limits the access we have to Irene. Such restrictions, after getting a glimpse of Irene’s full personality, reminded me how few stories about the sexuality and subjectivity of African American women have been told on the big screen.
In other words, at this time when black artists are celebrated and validated like never before, what does it mean to invest in films that fully transport us beyond a racist or sexist gaze and in their innermost thoughts?
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To this day, such layered representations are found primarily in the independent sphere, such as Kathleen Collins’ recently restored 1982 ‘Losing Ground’; Cheryl Dunye’s 1997 autofiction, “The Watermelon Woman”; and “I’ll Follow You” by Ava DuVernay in 2010. Not only do these films meditate on the struggles of black women to understand themselves as sexual or spiritual beings in the world, but they also do so by acknowledging darkness as the world. ‘one, and not the only, marker of their identity.
“Passing” reminds us of the need for films to take us beyond the surface – of skin and sight – and to revel in the worlds black women create for themselves beyond the gaze of others.