The Real Surprise of ‘Passing’: A Focus on Black Women’s Inner Lives

Midway through the new drama “Passing,” Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), the light-brown-skinned, upper-middle-class protagonist, offers a unique insight into her psyche when she says to her friend Hugh, “We’re, all of us, passing for something or the other,” and adds, “Aren’t we?”

Until now, Irene has successfully maintained her cover as both a respectable wife and proud African American woman. But when Hugh (Bill Camp) challenges her by asking why she does not pass for white like her biracial childhood friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), her response is a revelation, startling me almost as much as it did him.

“Who’s to say I am not?” she snaps back.

In that moment, I realized that what I had considered the B-plot of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing,” had risen to the surface in the writer-director Rebecca Hall’s adaptation, giving us a narrative that remains all too rare in Hollywood today: the interior world of a Black woman’s mind.

When I teach Larsen’s novel to my undergraduate students, I usually start with the obvious: its racial plot and the ways in which Clare finds refuge from racism by identifying as white, only to be tragically alienated from her Black family and community.

But I mainly teach “Passing” through what I think is the novel’s real central conflict: same-sex female desire and the paranoia that begins to overtake Irene, and for that matter Larsen’s story line, as a result of her unconsummated relationship with Clare. In a 1986 essay on Larsen’s novel, the critic Deborah E. McDowell explained why this longing had to appear secondary to the emphasis on race. “The idea of bringing a sexual attraction between two women to full expression,” she wrote, was “too dangerous of a move” in 1929. Instead, “Larsen enveloped the subplot of Irene’s developing if unnamed and unacknowledged desire for Clare in the safe and familiar plot of racial passing.”

Rather than explore the ways that Irene comes into her sexuality, racial passing — at the height of segregation in America — was considered a far more urgent and thus more conventional theme than that of Black women’s inner lives. As a consequence, Larsen’s novel ended up passing, too, eventually taking “the form of the act it implies,” McDowell concluded.

Visually, Hall compensates for the novel’s restraint through stolen glances, flirtatious phrases, and lingering touches and kisses between Clare and Irene. As Irene’s tension mounts, the film externalizes it through other symbols: a loudly ticking grandfather clock, a pot of water boiling over and even her breaking a teapot at a midday social in her home. In these hints, we see both Irene’s desire to break free from the illusion of middle-class domesticity and heterosexuality that she performs, as well as the threat that Clare’s presence poses to Irene’s sense of control.

But, to externalize Irene’s internal thoughts and her sublimated identity, the movie makes what is suggested in the novel far more explicit. For example, Irene’s confession to Hugh never actually happens in the book. Hall opted to amp up that moment, she explained in a video for Vanity Fair, because she wanted “to highlight the latent homosexuality and power dynamics” underlying their shared secret.

But for all that movie does so very well — its subtle swing jazz score; its beautiful black-and-white montages evocative of the photographers Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems; and the delightful cat-and-mouse performances by Thompson and Negga — it deliberately limits how much access we have to Irene. Such restrictions, after having a glimpse of Irene’s full personality, further reminded me of how few stories about African American female sexuality and subjectivity have been told on the big screen.

In other words, at this moment, when Black artists are being celebrated and validated as never before, what does it mean to invest in films that fully move us beyond a racist or sexist gaze and into their innermost thoughts?

To date, such layered depictions mainly are found in the indie sphere, like Kathleen Collins’s recently restored 1982 “Losing Ground”; Cheryl Dunye’s 1997 autofiction, “The Watermelon Woman”; and Ava DuVernay’s 2010 “I Will Follow You.” Not only do these films meditate on Black women’s struggles to understand themselves as sexual or spiritual beings in the world — but they also do so by acknowledging Blackness as one, not the only, marker of their identities.

“Passing” reminds us of the need for movies to get us past the surface — of skin and sight — and revel in the worlds that Black women create for themselves beyond the gaze of others.