Film & TV Muse

‘Passing’ and the History of Racial Masks as Theatre for Change

Camila Ponce-Hernández discusses the historical intricacies of Netflix's recent black-and-white drama

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Image Credit: Netflix

Editor's Note: This article contains references to racial discrimination

As we watch Passing’s opening scene, Rebecca Hall presents us with a visual landscape that entraps us in a binary of colour, in the duality of impression; that nothing, it seems, is really fixed. Watching Passing, it is advisable to keep this sense of flux in mind as it is oftentimes in the words unsaid that the film’s narrative prowess resides.

Through a thinly veiled cloche hat that slits her eyes in two, Irene (Tessa Thompson) masquerades a lighter, more respectable complexion, as she sits in an upscale Manhattan hotel cluttered with white faces. Until her gaze lands on Clare (Ruth Negga), perpetuating a supernatural shiver as a result of mutual observation. The two former school friends meet again, yet present to each other their masked selves; one with unnatural, peroxide hair, and the other emotionally barricaded for her own self-protection. Clare, in all her danger, transgressiveness, and freedom, becomes a personification of Irene’s curiosity, as she constantly bears witness to the former’s heroic self-invention, only to uncover a crisis of loyalty to American blackness which plagues them both.

Set in prohibition-era America, it seems that the only tool these women can use to be at peace with harsh, racialized realities is ignorance. Except, Hall’s camera claws beneath the skin of this naivety, and choreographs our gazes for a deeply disquieting experience. This network of looks also persists within the darting and demure interlockings that Clare and Irene share throughout, as if they were opposing mirrors, each telling the slanted truth of the other. Its source text, a 1929 novel written by Nella Larsen, is similarly anguished in its nature; it tells a story that hinges on appearances, on performative utterance and fleeting moments of social disobedience. The novel is told through Irene’s perspective, and Hall effectively maps the coordinates of Irene’s opaque yet delicate characterisation, which in itself is not far removed from the common reality she shares with Clare.

In Passing, Hall arrives behind the camera fully formed as a studied storyteller, precise in her cuts, scores, and with a palpable insight for composition. The 4:3 aspect ratio which frames the eye harkens to Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida, and has been emphatically proclaimed as an argument for the notion that ‘there is something about movies today that separates them from television’ (A24). Indeed, filmmakers insist on its use in order to distinguish the medium they are working through. Hall herself remarks that she wanted the film to feel “cloying, constrained and claustrophobic,” as if the characters themselves had been “put in a box” by both their own and Hall’s cinematic volition (Film Independent). Importantly, Hall adds that she wanted Passing to be “deliberately silent,” due to a need to ‘signal’ the viewer, for them to “lean in and do the work” rather than telling them what they should be feeling at any given moment.

It is worth noting that Clare and Irene, as both screen and print presences, are but silhouettes of women who are unable to fit comfortably into either the black or white communities. From this notion emerges the archetype of the tragic mulatta, a stock character in early African-American literature. Such accounts featured the light-skinned offspring of a white slaveholder and his black slave, whose mixed heritage in a race-based society means that she is unable to find a place among either blacks or whites, as in Lydia Maria Child’s The Quadroons (1842) and Slavery’s Pleasant Homes (1843).

George M. Fredrickson, author of The Black Image in the White Mind (1971), claimed that white Americans believed that mulattoes were a degenerate race because they had "White blood,” making them ambitious and power-hungry combined with "Black blood" which, in turn, gave them animalistic and savage qualities. The attributing of personality and morality traits to "blood" scaled the backbone of the Roaring ‘20s, and skewed any opportunities for anyone who had been seared into their otherness. Thus, mulatto women were depicted as emotionally troubled seducers and mulatto men as power-hungry criminals. Nowhere are these depictions more harmfully evident than in D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith’s work enacts a melodrama of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which justifies and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan as its subtext. Griffith based the film on Thomas Dixon’s anti-black novel The Clansman (1905), following his lead by depicting black characters as either “loyal darkies” or brutes and beasts lusting for power or, alternatively, white women.

Not only did The Birth cement the standards for cinematic technical innovation, it was also responsible for propagating cinematic anti-black images. All of the major black caricatures are appear in the movie, including, mammies, sambos, toms, picaninnies, coons, beasts, and tragic mulattoes. The depictions of Lydia (Mary Alden), a cold-hearted, hateful seductress, and Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), a power-hungry, sex-obsessed criminal, were early examples of the pathologies supposedly inherent in the tragic mulatto stereotype.

Hence, Hall’s nods to bygone Hollywood are made substantially clear through the conscious choice to reserve colour in the film, as if the camera had been trained to neutralise bias. The lack of colour pushes viewers to not think too deeply about the details of skin tone – the variance of colour, the difference in undertones, and the visual warmth of skin – and instead rely on the characters’ performances to form our racial perceptions. This complex estrangement seems to be translated from the literary language into a cinematic one and is further filtered through the unease of distortion, a colourlessness we have to adjust ourselves to. Ultimately, we are made hyper-aware of how 1920’s filmmakers would have handled the novel’s subject matter since Hall’s 20th century Chicago is only as brutal as reality had deemed it, and undiluted by any other agenda.

Passing’s concluding scenes guide us fully out of the trim and grace of the period piece’s colour-lined life. Irene and Clare’s disenfranchised livelihoods now forcefully confront the shackles of their predestination to a state of tragedy, misery, and even death. The ending is tender yet devastatingly ambiguous as moments before Clare’s chauvinistic husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) arrives at the party, Irene is staring out of the open window, meditating on the ash of her cigarette falling into the snow; a microcosm of her own dramatic suicide. Hall makes it clear that Irene isn’t thinking of harming another person, she’s thinking of harming herself. Yet, when John enters the frame, she spirals into a primal panic, worried about any potential harm he will inflict on Clare. The threads of her psychology and the tensions present in this conflict begin to align with reaction, not contemplation. As John rushes towards Clare, then, Irene’s action of pushing her out of the window could more subtly translate to an act of protection through how delicate the movement itself is, how careful.

After the camera centres on Clare’s tragic fall, Hall covers our eyes with the intimate, white fall of snow, rendering the two worlds she has been but a mere transient in, futile. The film’s fading into white before the integration of a dozing, dark black echoes what Larsen illustrates as Irene’s feelings about the future, writing that she would rather: “…feel nothing, to think nothing; [to] simply believe that it was all silly invention on her part. Yet she could not. Not quite.” The intimacy of uncertainty provoked in these lines underscores the tragedy of Clare and Irene – not in whether the act of passing is morally defensible, but in the fact that neither can fully provide an answer. Their ongoing betrayal of identity is rendered by Hall as alluring yet melancholy, and though they come close, as the darkness suggests, they can never rid themselves of what they belonged to.

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