Looking Through You
by Nicholas Russell
Dir. Rebecca Hall, U.S., Netflix
So much gets lost in the act of seeing. “Witnessing” as an alternative word, as an action that emphasizes a deliberate kind of seeing, has been privileged a much broader and perhaps too liberal use. In the context of race, to witness something, like police murder or civic disenfranchisement, does not necessarily mean one understands what they are being exposed to. The documentation of an event does not always come with the thoughtful documentarian’s intention of dissecting it. Who is watching and who is being watched are questions that merit serious scrutiny, and the answer to each reveals how much or little understanding of the situation at hand there is.
When Passing premiered at Sundance, the former question as to who is watching, and specifically why a white woman would want to make a movie that dwells in the complicated grey area of racial recognition, fell on director Rebecca Hall’s shoulders, a burden she should have expected, but one she awkwardly handled. Her reasoning rested on an explication of personal connection. Hall’s paternal grandfather was a light-skinned black man who married a white woman and passed as white himself. A family myth made into confessional personal history, notes of complexity and intrigue shaded in as only race can. “In a way,” Hilton Als wrote in a review for The New Yorker, “Passing is Hall’s coming-out film.” In a way, but not quite.
Now that the film is primed for wide release, with a premiere at NYFF and distribution through Netflix, the latter question, of who exactly we are watching and how they fit into the narrative, is being asked with more verve. The casting of Ruth Negga, a daughter of a white Irish mother and an Ethiopian father, as Clare, a light-skinned black woman who passes as white, has raised questions amongst people who have not yet seen the movie. Chiefly, that Negga doesn’t look white enough to successfully pass. If this all seems a bit circuitous, with an adaptation of a work of fiction about passing inspiring intense debate about the light or darkness, the right or wrongness, of its actors, it goes a long way toward validating the observations drawn so deftly in Nella Larsen’s book. People are “so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means…”
Hall’s Passing turns on this line but struggles to depict the myriad themes set forth in Larsen’s novella. The story, about two estranged, light-skinned friends who reconnect in 1920s New York, is one that dares you to assume where it will go. Though Clare and her childhood friend Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) are able to pass with varying degrees of success, Larsen was more focused on what the respective qualities of black and white life could afford. Irene seemingly bears no shame about her blackness. She’s married to a black doctor visibly darker than her (played by André Holland), lives in Harlem, and serves on the committee for the Negro Welfare League. But when she suddenly encounters Clare after twelve long years, the confrontation pulls open deep stitches.
For one, Irene has a physical and psychic attraction to Clare, who lives a tenuous existence in a white world where people speak and joke openly about the savagery of black people. (Clare’s oblivious husband Jack, played by Alexander Skarsgård, jokingly calls Clare “Nig”.) For another, Irene’s frustrations as a wife and mother, which do not begin because of Clare, worsen with her presence. Irene’s fascination with her old friend is all-consuming. In the film, it seems to steal time away from her days. In Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, another entry in the literary-to-cinematic passing canon, the young Sarah Jane cannot stand her blackness and continually tries to escape from it, first by passing and then by running away. Clare, for her part, is like a child who in some ways abandoned and was abandoned by her home. Those twelve absent years represent a gulf in which Clare was lost and seemingly swallowed by the world. Her return to the other side of the color line, Irene assumes, offers her bliss. But Clare longs to rekindle a connection to her blackness, one that’s thwarted by her own racism. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, one character says, “The onliest time I be happy seem like was when I was in the picture show. . . White men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses with the bathtubs right in the same room with the toilet. Them pictures gave me a lot of pleasure, but it made coming home hard.”
Hall takes on such hair-fine layering with unerring certainty. “Confidence” is a word used in many early reviews of Passing. This applies to its visual presentation and to Negga’s acting, but not necessarily its narrative execution. Though shooting in black and white, cinematographer Eduard Grau paints the film in extremes of light. The first time Irene sees Clare at a downtown restaurant, the walls and tables and linens are blinding, almost like an afterimage. By contrast, Irene’s home and Harlem in general are shown with far more detail and texture, though Hall luxuriates in obviating shadows that swallow dark corners and unlit hallways. Such polar methods give Passing a dreamlike quality, almost drunken, with Larsen’s interior character descriptions rendered as slow-motion vignettes of moving bodies, motes of dust in the air, tree branches floating by as seen from inside a car, blurred images of shadowy figures.
More than her visual ambitions, Hall’s career as an actor serves Thompson and Negga effectively. Thompson, who so often exudes energy and a watchful, cat-like playfulness in her roles, turns in on herself, her performance as much about silence and stillness as it is about activity. But the role of Irene strains her skills as a performer. The thoughts and feelings captured by the third-person omniscient narrator in the novella are transposed as shots of what I assume Hall hoped to be meaningful face acting, which Thompson doesn’t quite pull off. Negga, however, could not be better suited as Clare. Alluring but wary, alive but unbalanced by the blinders privilege has afforded her, Negga plays Clare as a trickster who’s given up the game. It’s not that Clare is conning anyone, any more than we con ourselves when granting race so much importance on the bearing of one’s character. She is simply taking the road presented to her and trying to survive. Negga’s grand talent is her application and transformation of self. Rather than throwing off all vestiges of her own personality, she molds them to the shape of the role so that she appears at once comfortable and spontaneous, present but altered.
Because Hall engages with Larsen’s text on a subterranean level, Passing stops short of a vanity project. This is meaningful work for Hall, but it’s stilted by her decision to strip out the book’s narration. Though the film runs a cool 98 minutes that would seem to match the novella’s length, Hall mistakes brevity for spareness. Larsen’s book is not light on dialogue nor plotting, and it doesn’t depict New York as a silent backdrop. Hall reuses several locations and gives others a nondescript but lived-in quality, as if a ballroom could easily be a hotel lobby if the right number of people were present. This grants the film an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. This is effective in certain moments, especially when we retreat with Irene into her home, but it persists throughout the entire film and obscures the sensational, restless nature of the novella. Passing is cold and unsettling for that reason. As a film, it parrots the language of strife and alienation in a segregated world but leaves out the body that speaks it. It is beautiful, but inert and distant, an echo of the novella, less a memory than a sketch.