In her essay Whiteness as Property, critical race theorist Cheryl Harris tells a story about her grandmother, who ‘passed’ racially as a white woman: “Day in and day out, she made herself invisible, then visible again… at a cost too precious to conceive.” Such is the power of whiteness: invisibility. Nella Larsen knew it, too, and in her novel Passing – one of the definitive works of the Harlem Renaissance – she set about exploring all the implications of performing whiteness.

The story follows two Black women who present – intentionally or otherwise – as white in 1920s New York. The middle-class Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), who passively ‘passes’ and only occasionally, is married to a Black doctor Brian (Andre Holland) with two dark-skinned sons. But her childhood friend Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) has been passing for years, most significantly to her racist white husband Jack (Alexander Skarsgård).

In her directorial debut, actress Rebecca Hall’s adoration for the novel radiates throughout the film. It’s an elegant and faithful if somewhat stilted adaptation. Although stylishly shot, the Harlem of Hall’s imagining is noticeably sparse and quiet, rather unlike the relentlessly dynamic Harlem so many Black artists depicted. There’s an attractive lyricism to the stillness, but few traces of cultural specificity emerge. In some ways the clipped, period proceedings suggest more of an English repression (or films about that), an altogether different beast from the respectability politics at the centre of middle-class Black households.

One problem with Passing is that Thompson and Negga – both biracial – do not quite pass, if only because we are so extra-textually aware of them as actresses. Negga, in particular, is saddled with a distracting blonde wig and bleached eyebrows. The black-and-white photography, far from a purely symbolic or stylistic choice, obscures what would look preposterous in colour. It would have been far more effective to leave Negga, like Thompson, without all these trappings; but in drawing attention to her ‘whiteness’ the film loses something fundamental about passing as white – that mask of invisibility – and leaves the very lines it should be troubling intact.

Racial passing is so threatening because it destabilises supposed racial boundaries, reveals them to be as tenuous as they truly are, and renders the oppression built on them a farce. It asks hard questions about what it means not to be Black but to be white, and how arbitrarily that category has historically been defined. Even if, factually, complexion was enough to fool white Northerners (who did not tend to be in close quarters with many Black people), the audience should somehow be confronted with that ambiguity, because it announces other fluidities that belie ever dominant binary structures.

As it happens, this adaptation equally starves us of the novel’s other central puzzle: Irene’s sexuality. There are a few exquisite camera movements: a pan down Clare’s back; Clare’s blurry spectre hovering near the bed where Irene lies. On one hand this restraint matches Irene’s repression and self-denial; but it never quite feels alive – the way it could in 2021 – especially when eclipsed by Brian’s possible affair with Clare, something more cryptic in the book which is made nearly explicit here.

Much of what does work comes from the source material, like Irene’s colourism and class obsessions played out with her darker-skinned maid Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins). After all, when we first meet her, Irene is passing. It seems she only chooses her Blackness dutifully, because like motherhood and marriage it has been mapped out for her. But, light-skinned and wealthy, Irene is largely shielded from the violent realities of Black life, a condition she foolishly tries to curate for her family, who will never be so protected. When Clare tells Irene, “I’m not safe!” there’s a fantastic multivalence to it. Irene’s desperation for security shackles her to categories. Apart from her standard symbolism as a double figure, one who embodies all Irene’s most dangerous, selfish, untempered desires, Clare – who feels bound to no duties either as a wife or mother – reminds Irene of her own mask/masquerade. But even poetic performances from the leads, especially Negga and Holland, cannot fully overcome the script which, though scrupulously true to the text, somehow flattens its emotions and stifles the final act.

Much has been made of Hall’s personal connection to the material through her mother, the mixed-race opera singer Maria Ewing. Actually (and perhaps naturally) her direction shines most through the performances she coaxes from her actors. Formally it’s a promising debut and an admirable effort for a novel that was always going to be treacherous to translate. But the adaptation misses much of what made Larsen’s tale so rich and enduring.

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