Note: Plot points that could be considered spoilers for Passing are discussed in this piece.
If you’re wondering how anyone could possibly believe actresses Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga could “pass” for white in Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, keep in mind that a) monochrome photography is very good at “hiding” degrees of skin tones, which is almost certainly why Hall and cinematographer Edu Grau chose that presentation for this film, and b) the differences between who is “white” and who is “black” change all the time with culture and politics and societal evolution and the distinctions are almost entirely arbitrary… and somehow are also the source of the very real pain and longing and desire and fear tearing apart Clare and Reenie in Passing and all of us right now in the real world.
Oh, before I continue on… just to quickly get this out of the way, I strongly disagree with Joey Magidson’s assessment of Passing on all points except his praise for Thompson and Negga’s beautiful performances. This is an exceptionally thoughtful and poignant take on race, identity, and attraction, as well as a remarkable deconstruction of the aesthetics of pre-Code cinema that informed American racial and class identities of the era. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Anyway, one of the key lines of the film occurs during Clare’s first night out in Harlem, when Reenie tells her friend Hugh, “It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white, I’m not sure it’d be so simple for a white person to pass for colored.” Little would she know that, forty years later, a white journalist named John Howard Griffin would sincerely put this to the test, taking on a regimen of anti-vitiligo drugs, hours of ultraviolet light exposure, and makeup to “pass” for a black man to see what life was like for one in the American South in the 60’s. He published his experiences of racial discrimination in a bestselling book called Black Like Me, and for a time it was required reading in American high schools.
The book is… not as widely circulated these days. For the obvious reason that people started realizing how silly it was to assign a book from a white author “passing” for black to teach kids about racism instead of black authors like… well, Nella Larsen, whose novella is the basis for Hall’s film. Much like Gregory Peck in Gentlemen’s Agreement, white folks had a strange habit in the mid-20th century of jumping through undercover hoops to “experience” bigotry first-hand instead of just asking the victims of bigotry what they go through and believing them.But the more I learned about race and exposed myself to experiences outside of my small, conservative, predominantly-white southern town I grew up in, I came to understand there was a deeper problem with Griffin’s investigation framing the issue of race as something that exclusively effected black people. As if racism hasn’t had corrupting, insidious consequences for people who have claimed the nebulous title of “white.” This title that describes no inherent biological superiority, nor has it ever had a fixed definition (Irish and Italian-Americans weren’t considered “white” not that long ago), yet it is something millions of people have literally fought and died to preserve. Despite it being no more reflective of a person’s character or intelligence than eye color.
Imagine, for a moment, if in America, brown-eyed people with a college degree were almost twice as likely to be unemployed as blue-eyed folks of any educational attainment. Imagine if, on a per capita basis, brown-eyed people were between two-to-three times more likely than blue-eyed people to be killed by police. Or if blue-eyed people were half as likely to be unemployed, 1/3rd as likely to live in poverty, half the rate of infant mortality, had nine years higher life expectancy on average, and possessed fifteen times the average net worth of brown-eyed people.
If you were in Clare’s position, and had the ability to “pass” as a blue-eyed person, because of this nonsense made-up distinction invented by the ruling class centuries ago to divide and conquer the underclass… would you take it? This is of course a hypothetical I’ll never have to consider. In the end, Reenie was ultimately right: despite conferring more privileges, “whiteness” is a more nebulous barrier to pass through than “blackness” (though some have tried!). The concept of what is “gained” or “lost” in one’s racial identity is a thing that most white people, and the vast majority of institutions we control in America, don’t seriously consider on a personal level. Think about CNN’s recent question in the wake of the Critical Race Theory moral panic coming from the far-right:
This is only a question that could be asked by white people with a straight face. As Reenie’s husband Brian correctly argues, black and brown children don’t have the luxury of not knowing about racism. You can forbid uttering the N-word around the house… but sooner or later they’ll hear it. You can shut down discussions of lynching… but that won’t prevent them from learning about its very real danger to their lives (which, oh by the way, still happen in America). Us whites are alone in the luxury of not having to know about race if we don’t want to. And boy oh boy are we learning just how many white people really don’t want to know about it. The pain we experience from these realities – from feeling “uncomfortable” about racism education in schools to John’s rage in the climactic confrontation – is entirely self-inflicted. Our fragility is our defense mechanism for the unspoken privileges that are Just. So. Seductive.
I do mean “seductive” in every sense. Now, repressed homosexual longing radiating off of ostensibly platonic relationships has been a thing for most of human history. If you’ve ever learned about a historical figure like James Buchanan or Eleanor Roosevelt who describe a “special friendship” in their lives, Clare and Reenie are a pretty good approximation of what most of them are referring to. But in Passing, it takes on an added dimension that neither of them can acknowledge out loud. Few things are more universally acknowledged as sexy than the allure of The Forbidden. We cannot resist desiring that person who embodies something we can’t have on our own. Reenie offers a life without inhibition; a husband and children who you never have to lie to, and a lifelong connection to the community and culture she’s grown up with. And what could be sexier than that kind of freedom? Clare offers privilege; the ability to go to spaces, access a kind of deference no person of color has, and opportunities for her daughter that are inaccessible to Reenie’s two sons. And what could be sexier than access to that kind of social power? No wonder Reenie suspects her husband of also falling for Clare.
So here we are, a century later from the story of Reenie and Clare, in the same collective dilemma, knowing in our heart of hearts how entirely pretend this construct of “race” is but not sure how to free ourselves from its consequences, or its insidious romantic allure, or how to live with the millions of John Bellews among us. What will we be “passing” for in 3021?
Here is the answer key, by the way:
How many did you guess correctly?