We’re All Trying to Pass as Something in Passing

It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. – James Joyce’s “The Dead”

I couldn’t help but think of James Joyce’s “The Dead” as the snow began to fall faintly in the closing scenes of Passing. Here the snow is faintly falling over 1920s Harlem at night, the darkening images flecked with whiteness matching the mood of the film’s main characters, Irene and Clare.

Rebecca Hall’s audacious debut as a director, an astute and warmly artistic adaptation of the Harlem Renaissance era novel by Nella Larsen, is gently overflowing with symbolism and foreshadowing and aching depth of feeling. The black and white cinematography is thematically potent as the film, which is about the many shades of grey between being black and white (and the social construct of race), navigates the complex relationship between two black women walking their own tightropes through life, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga).

Irene feels safe only in the cozy bubble inside her own Harlem home with her doctor husband and two upstanding young boys while the outside world beyond Harlem (where she organizes events for The Negro League for rich white people to mingle with the exotic locals) is increasingly rife with danger and full of white people who hate her and her family merely for the color of their skin. Meanwhile, Clare feels safe in the outside world where she easily passes for white whenever she pleases while charming both blacks and whites in Harlem, only to live in constant danger in her own Manhattan home where her racist white husband could turn violent if he ever caught on to her double-life.

Finely curated costumes, hair & makeup, set designs and period music accentuate the dreamy black and white cinematography by Edu Grau which impeccably frames and lights the roiling emotions hidden underneath the carefully crafted veneers of these women’s lives. It’s sun-splashed and woozy when the women are happy. Then it’s moody, dark, and impressionistic (those tree branches!) as their relationships and feelings become strained.

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga give rich, nuanced, raw yet refined performances in the lead roles. Hall couldn’t have asked for a better cast.

POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD

As the film builds quietly, broodingly, to a devasting dénouement, the snow begins to fall. While it starts to cover everything (just like Clare’s fragile whiteness and Irene’s false sense of security in her own skin), we know that it will eventually melt under heat. It falls. We all fall. Sometimes metaphorically. Sometimes physically. Into the quiet tragedies of our own twisted fates.

There are images from Passing I will never forget. And every time it starts to snow, until the descent of my last end, I’ll think of Irene’s flick of her hand through an open sixth-floor window, her cigarette ashes faintly falling with the snowflakes into the courtyard…foreshadowing something horrible to come. It’s a haunting reminder of how fragile and fleeting everything is in our delicately constructed complicated lives…all of us in our own ways trying to pass as something or someone just to survive.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

3 comments

  1. An inspiring and astute review, David. Apt comparison with Joyce’s “The Dead”, the other meaning of the word ‘Passing’. I like that quote too, we’re all passing, in one form or another, not necessarily race. People hide behind disguises in one way or another, all the time. [Spoiler Alert in the following] The ending is certainly open-ended… however I feel Hall’s interpretation is different from Larsen’s. I particularly notice the camera staying on Irene’s extended hand as she stands alone by the window after everyone has rushed downstairs, then slowly bringing it back to her body. In the book, I get the impression that it’s Irene’s own doing.

    • There are so many ways to interpret the ending – and ultimately I think there are slivers and layers of truth in all of it. Like any climactic event in real life – there are shades of grey and layers of motive (conscious and unconscious).

      • Yes, shades of greys, as the B/W film reveals, and the mixed motive, conscious and unconscious. Definitely a good source for book club or film discussion.

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