'Passing' is a beautiful, messy domestic drama : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the Netflix melodrama Passing, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play childhood friends who are reunited years later in 1920s Harlem. Both women are Black and fair-skinned, but only one of them has chosen to "pass" — to completely abandon their ties to the Black community and identify as white. The movie premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and marks the directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall. And it's already gaining some awards season heat.

'Passing' is a beautiful, messy domestic drama

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In the Netflix melodrama "Passing," two childhood friends are reunited years later in 1920s Harlem. Both women are Black and fair-skinned, but only one of them has chosen to pass - that is, to completely abandon their ties to the Black community and identify as white. The movie stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga and marks the directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall. It premiered at Sundance earlier this year and is already gaining some award season heat. I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "Passing" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


HARRIS: Joining me today from her home in Los Angeles is the senior correspondent for Code Switch, Karen Grigsby Bates. Welcome, Karen.


HARRIS: And also joining us is Brittany Luse, who's the co-host of the "For Colored Nerds" podcast. Welcome back, Brittany.

BRITTANY LUSE: Thank you. It's good to be here.

HARRIS: Yes, I am very excited to talk with you both. So in "Passing," Tessa Thompson plays Irene, who's a 1920s Harlem socialite among the Black professional class. One day she runs into Clare, an old childhood friend played by Ruth Negga. Irene is shocked to learn Clare has married a white banker and has been passing for white. Clare begins popping into Irene's life. She attends Irene's social events and befriends her husband, Brian, who's played by Andre Holland. And all the while, Clare's intermingling with the Black community she left behind years earlier poses the risk that her real identity will eventually be exposed to her husband, John, who's played by Alexander Skarsgard. The movie was written and directed by Rebecca Hall, who adapted it from the 1929 novel of the same name by the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen.

Now, Brittany, I want to start with you. What were your initial thoughts about the movie?

LUSE: Overall, I actually liked it quite a bit. I spent a lot of the past year (laughter) - a lot of this year working on, like, a longer piece about the book "Passing" in, like, a modern American passing saga. So I have read "Passing," like, six or seven times this year (laughter).


LUSE: And honestly, it felt pretty faithful to the book, for the most part, and I felt like it also captured - there's like this very - it's almost like I can't put words to it - quality that the book has. And I felt like the film really got that for me. Like, I felt like it was in this very specific sliver of Black New York in the 1920s. I didn't know how that was going to turn out. Rebecca Hall hasn't lived the exact life experience of the characters in the book, and also she's a first-time writer and director who had spent decades before then acting. So I was like, I don't know how this is going to go. But overall, I was pretty impressed. I thought it was a really strong debut, and it was really interesting to watch the film after having spent so much time with the book this year.

HARRIS: Yeah, I see what you're saying about that quality that the book has. I don't know how to define it either, but it seems like it has a very sort of crispness and incisiveness into the very specific thoughts of Irene. It's told from the perspective of Irene and in the same way that the movie is, and it's interesting to see that translated onto the screen. And I feel like it did kind of capture that in a way as well.

Karen, what were your thoughts on the movie? And I know you've read the book too as well, correct?

BATES: I have, yeah. My visceral reaction was, one, it's very beautiful. It moves sort of slowly and almost dreamily. It gives you this idealized look at Renaissance-era Harlem before everything sort of crumbled into the neighborhood that people wouldn't go to after dark. And she did a good job of sort of portraying a very rich, vibrant Black life, both culturally, commercially. I have to say, I mean, part of the movie's - just as with fiction, I guess - is you want the reader, or in this case the viewer, to suspend disbelief. And I spent the whole movie thinking, but they don't look white. They don't look white.

Ruth Negga looks like anybody I could be riding the metro with in D.C. Tessa Thompson looks like half your school classmates. I mean, to me, they look like pale Black women. And so to sort of push this narrative that Clare has, quote-unquote, "gotten away with being white" is harder for me to swallow. Although I understand that passing isn't a one-sided thing. You know, there's the intent of the person who passes, but there's also the perception of the person who's looking at the person who's passing.

HARRIS: Right.

BATES: And so if they don't expect to see a Black person, maybe they don't. But having lived as a Black person for my entire life, that part didn't do it for me.

HARRIS: We should probably note, which I don't think we've done yet, that this film is shot in black and white.

LUSE: Yeah.

BATES: And that's part of why it's beautiful.

HARRIS: Yeah, that's a huge part of why it's so gorgeous to look at. And the way in which the colors are used to sort of literally whitewash the way their faces look and to sort of make them look like these very pale - I don't know. Their skin just radiates in a way.

BATES: They do. They radiant. They almost glow.

HARRIS: And I totally understand your point, Karen, about having to sort of make that leap in your mind to wonder how they could pass, because the other thing about passing is it's not just about how light your skin is, but it's also about what your features are and how your features might be perceived as. And so there are certain people who you look at and they could have skin just like very, very white, but then their features might be more like what we expect a Black person or a person of African descent to have. And so you have Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, who have those sort of features - the sort of wider noses and fuller lips that you don't expect. That was a lot of the conversation that was happening when the trailer dropped - was like, these people (laughter) could not pass.

But the other thing that I find really interesting about both this and the book - there's a moment in the book when one of the characters is talking to a white character about how white people have a hard time being able to see these things for whatever reason, whether it's they see what they want to see, they project these things. Whereas everyone who is Black, they know. There's a sense that you know. And I think it's interesting to think of it in that way, the way it's playing with the idea that, like, it's supposed to be obvious in a way. Like, she cast these actors for a very specific reason. And whether or not it works for you or not, I guess your mileage may vary. But I think it's interesting that she didn't go the way that a lot of movies have gone in the past, whether it's, you know, a movie like "Pinky" from the 1940s where you had white actors...

BATES: Jeanne Crain, yeah.

HARRIS: ...Yeah, Jeanne Crain playing these characters. In "Imitation Of Life," like, again, we have white actresses playing those characters.

BATES: But the original one had a Black actress - Fredi Washington...

HARRIS: Right. That's true. That's true.

BATES: ...Who, you know, insisted on being cast as Black. People kept saying, you know, if you just shut up, you get a lot more work. And she's like, that's not who I am.

HARRIS: Right.

BATES: So yeah, I have to confess that, you know, when I saw "Devil In A Blue Dress" 50 bazillion years ago...


BATES: ...Jennifer Beals has never looked white to me. She may not look fully Black, and she isn't, but she doesn't look white to me. And a lot of the people that they cast in these parts, who may be biracial or maybe, you know, have some Black in their racial ancestry - or, as Rebecca Hall's mother said to her when she asked, well, do we have, you know, Black people in the family? She said, well, there might be a little bit - a little bit of Black - that's not really germane to who we are. And they, in fact, passed in Detroit, which was pretty interesting 'cause she looks like everybody in my high school yearbook - her mom.

HARRIS: Yeah. Brittany, you wrote about this, actually, in Vulture. It was really fascinating piece 'cause you tie this actually to - the book "Passing" and the movie to the Mariah Carey memoir, which came out last year...

LUSE: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...In which she really digs into her biracial identity and how her ability in some people's minds to, quote-unquote, "pass," even though she herself never saw herself as passing, or she didn't make that her intent, but the way in which others viewed her. I think, it's a really interesting lens to look at. And can you talk a little bit more about sort of what you uncovered, what that dialogue was like for you to sort of tear into?

LUSE: Yeah. So what happened actually is last summer I decided to read "Passing." And then I always loved, like, Danzy Senna's books. But I had never read "Caucasia," which is, like, her debut novel. And it's about a young girl who is basically forced to pass as a Jewish girl by her white mother. Right after that, I read "The Vanishing Half," about two twins from Louisiana - one who decides to pass as white, the other one who doesn't. And then it just happened to line up with the release of "The Meaning Of Mariah Carey," her memoir. As I was reading "The Meaning Of Mariah Carey," after reading all these other books back to back, I was like, oh, this is the same book.


LUSE: Like, I don't know if I would have thought about it that way if I hadn't read those books before I read Mariah Carey's memoir. The word passing and people assuming that she's passing, it comes up over and over again in the book. In interviews her co-writer, Michaela Angela Davis, like, the renowned writer and editor who co-wrote this book with Mariah, she says that, like, conversation around themes of identity, specifically even the tragic mulatto stereotype that many people attach to stories like "Pinky" or like "Imitation Of Life," like, those were things that they were really digging into and talking about as they were getting into the book.

HARRIS: Right.

LUSE: So many people think of race as very black and white, and also, like, as very, quote-unquote, like, "phenotypical." Like, how do you look? How curly is your hair? Like, you were talking about features.

HARRIS: Right.

LUSE: Do your features feel like they swing more European? Do they swing more, like, African? Which is it?

HARRIS: Right.

LUSE: And so, like, when I was growing up, I knew Mariah Carey was Black.

HARRIS: Can I confess that I did not?

LUSE: Really?

BATES: Really?

HARRIS: And I feel like a bad Black person 'cause I just didn't...

LUSE: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...Realize it until, like, years, years later, like, way after I should have known.

LUSE: Your experience is not unfamiliar to a lot of people. But her memoir really drove home - and I think this is something that comes up in a lot of modern American passing sagas, especially as they're written by Black women - is, like, how you move through the world is as much about who you believe yourself to be as how you seem to other people...

HARRIS: Right.

LUSE: ...And also them, you know, pushing their projections and assumptions on to you as well. Mariah Carey was somebody who was really insistent that she was biracial. And she thinks of herself as a Black woman. But the way that she looked was such a hurdle for some people to understanding that or accepting that. Casual, probably white listeners or non-Black listeners probably wanted to think of her as more like them.


LUSE: Going back to your point, Karen, about the way that Ruth Negga looks or the way that Tessa Thompson looks, I mean, I agree.

BATES: Yeah.

LUSE: When I saw the original stills from the film, I was like, you know, I'm like - we couldn't - no Zendaya?


BATES: And we should be clear, they are both - like, Negga is biracial.


BATES: And Thompson is multiracial. I think she's Black and white and...

HARRIS: Afro-Latina.

BATES: Latina.


BATES: So she has all of that in that sort of ethnic gumbo. But it still did not make her look white enough for me. You know, when - there's a scene in the beginning of the book when they reconnect. Irene, Thompson's character, is actually passing. She goes up to the rooftop of a hotel on a very hot day to get a cool drink and to just sort of be out of the sun for a moment. And she knows the hotel doesn't let Negroes, as they would say back then, or colored in. So she doesn't say she's white, but she also doesn't say what she is. She just sort of quietly sides in, sits in her seat and hopes that no one will notice and notices this white woman staring at her, who turns out to be her childhood friend, who kind of taunts her, you know? Don't you recognize me? Don't you know who I am? 'Cause she obviously looks the same. So when she says, well, why would I pass, I have everything I've ever wanted, clearly, there are some things you want that you can't have unless you pass.

HARRIS: Right, right.

BATES: And so she does. But she's also judging Clare for passing permanently as opposed to situationally.

LUSE: Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah, I really like the way that Rebecca Hall sort of plays with that in the beginning because for the first, like, probably 10, 15 minutes when Tessa Thompson's character is making her way into that hotel and even in the toy store where she's at - where the movie begins, the way the hat is framed and the use of the hats is her way of sort of passing. She constantly keeps her head sort of tilted downwards and the wide brim of the sort of sheer hat - she doesn't want them to look too closely because then if they look too closely, she might not be able to pass. There's always sort of, like, that element of danger or being found out. And so there's sort of hypocrisy that lies within that character.

I saw the movie at Sundance earlier this year, and then I read the book for the first time just a few days ago before I rewatched the movie again 'cause I wanted to see what the comparison would be. And also, it's a very short book. It's only a hundred pages, so it was easy for me to get through very quickly. But it was interesting to see how flawed the Irene character is. She's not a perfect character, even though she hasn't chosen to pass, and she sort of makes that sort of her point of pride. It's like, I would never pass. Like, she has these horrible thoughts sometimes about Clare, and she wrestles with those horrible thoughts and about, like, the way in which she feels as though Clare has betrayed her race.

And I feel like the movie kind of deals with that a little bit at the beginning but then doesn't. It kind of lets it go and it becomes more about this sort of worries and concerns about the possibility that there could be something going on between her and her husband, played by Andre Holland, who I think is wonderful in this. And it becomes more sort of like a domestic drama then it - I thought, anyway, and less about the sort of passing. It kind of recedes in the background for me, and I'm curious if you felt that way at all or what your thoughts were. I also got some interesting possible homoerotic tones going...

LUSE: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...On between them that I didn't get in the book.

BATES: Yeah, I didn't get it in the book, either.


LUSE: See, I always have gotten that in the book.


HARRIS: Yeah, I didn't see that. But you did, Brittany?

LUSE: I more so think of it as, like, about desire. Something that I felt was different, the book has a very deliberate pace. I feel like the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I read the book, even though I know what's going to happen (laughter). But in the movie, I realize it reminded me a lot of an erotic thriller...


LUSE: ...But the idea of, like, someone's trying to break up a marriage and whatever.


LUSE: I think some of the reasons why things can't translate is just because so much of Irene's not just domestic anxieties, but her racial anxieties come through in sort of her internal monologue that we are privy to as the reader. And I think sometimes that can be hard to put on screen. Although...


LUSE: ...This is not a knock at Rebecca Hall, the director, but I would be curious to see, like, a Black female American director who's more unambiguously of Black ancestry and has had those experiences and felt some of that tension or witness somebody else, you know, having that sort of, like, internal tussle. I would be really curious to see how a director like that would handle it.

BATES: Yeah, I was thinking if Viola Davis had had a hand in this.

LUSE: I always felt like it was just overall about desire. Like...


LUSE: ...Irene sees in Clare so much that she cannot have because she's not willing to pay this price of passing.

BATES: Right.

LUSE: And I think over the course of the book, you kind of see Irene - I don't know if so much wondering if she should pass or if her life would be easier if she were Clare. By being exposed to what she can't have, she begins to be even more dissatisfied with what she already does have. And the way that Clare moves through life gives Irene this ache for a life that she's never going to know and exposes her to all of these things. Like, Irene prides herself on being, like, you know, in the Black elite upper class.

BATES: So she's passing as perfect.


LUSE: For many Black people, I think there's a desire to just be in that space because you want to be in that space. But I think once Clare reenters Irene's life, Irene, I think, is in - more in a space of questioning - is this where I want to be, or is this where I have to be because I've chosen to live my life as a Black woman when I had other options?

It could be sexual desire. I think there's a little bit of wanting to be Clare and also, like, wanting to be desired by this husband she has this passive-aggressive pull with - Irene, I mean.

HARRIS: Right.

LUSE: So maybe because her husband is interested in Clare as a person or in the novelty of Clare being around, I think Irene wants to be that object of her husband's affection again, as well as coveting some of whatever Irene has for herself.

BATES: There's one point that - it did make me think, maybe there is something happening between Clare and Irene. When they were getting ready to go out somewhere and Clare leans over and gives Irene a very slow, purposeful kiss on the cheek, I mean, there's nothing improper about it, but it does raise this little frisson of - did I miss that? Was I not paying attention?

HARRIS: Yeah. There's also another moment at the dance. So at one point, they go to this big fancy ball gala. Irene reaches for her hand and takes her hand, and then Clare looks back at her. And there's just a moment before someone interrupts them. And it's, like, very quick. But I was like, oh, this could be a moment.

I think it's also just - to your point, Brittany, it's also just the freedom that Clare seems to have or she thinks that Clare has because Clare is so sort of brazen about it. And even though it's not really a freedom - they're both in their own sort of prisons of some sort. But she sees it as a different kind of freedom or just a jealousy of not being able to feel that way.

We don't have to get too into the details about the ending, but it does end, I think, in a very different way. And some would say abruptly, but I also think the book ends abruptly as well. But...

BATES: I think the book does, too.

HARRIS: You know, how do you feel about the way in which it sort of - whatever conclusion it comes to, you know, in comparison to the book or just on its own? Karen, do you have thoughts on how it ends?

BATES: You know, the thing I first thought of when I saw the absolute end was, oh, this is somebody telegraphing these are the wages of sin. If you go to deceive people, if you're not yourself, if you're whatever, you could end up in a very bad space. So that was thought No. 1. It was, you know, sort of a morality lesson. The book, I think, was a little different, and I missed the book ending in the movie.

HARRIS: Yeah, I can see that.

LUSE: It felt more like in the book that Irene is having this, like, sort of moment of self-deception where she can't decide, like, is she going to live in reality (laughter) or is she going to live in her fantasy? Is she telling herself the story of the way that she wishes things were or that they had gone? It's ambiguous, but it's more so ambiguous as to where Irene ends up at the end of the book. Self-delusion or not - which is she going to choose? And I think that the film - it feels ambiguous, like the very end. But I noticed watching a second time that there's all these little mini moments in the final third of the film that feel pretty deliberate.


LUSE: Maybe that was like the director's way of thinking about, like, another way of approaching ambiguity, especially because so much of, like, the final moments in the book again happen internally for Irene.

HARRIS: Obviously, we're not getting into the details of this, so this might seem very opaque. But I really like the film overall, and I think the ending was where it kind of lost me for those very reasons you gave in that it felt a little too obvious to me, whereas I liked the sort of ambiguity or, like, the cloudiness of the ending of the book. I think overall, I appreciate that Rebecca Hall took a different path to the ending, but I'm not sure it really works for me. But I think if you haven't read the book, you won't have that comparison. And so it's hard to say.

LUSE: I wonder how you guys have thought about how the theme of passing - like passing for one thing when you're really another - shows up in the film or in the book for you, outside of racial passing. Did it show up for you thematically at all the rest of the movie or the rest of the book?

BATES: Oh, yeah. Irene was passing as perfect and perfectly happy and perfectly committed to Black uplift when basically what that might have been was the vehicle to keep her perch in society - to be able to, you know, do these fundraisers, to bring these white people in who are allies and also kind of voyeurs, that she's not completely dedicated to what you think she is. She's just busy.

HARRIS: Yeah. I think that's a great question, Brittany, and I completely agree. And it's interesting because Tessa Thompson in interviews has mentioned how it is about more than just passing for white or Black. It is about the way in which we all pass. And I think to some extent, there's a way that that could sort of flatten how specific this kind of passing is, but I think there is some truth to it in that we all do, in various points in our lives, perhaps, try to conform or try to sort of distance ourselves from a part of who we are that we might be ashamed of, or just because it makes it easier to get by in a certain way. It could be as simple as code switching, Karen...


HARRIS: ...Which could be a subset of passing in a way. The way it shows up in the book and the movie is in very interesting ways, and I think that that's part of what makes this story itself so fascinating is because it goes beyond that. There are layers to all of the passing that is going on.

LUSE: I definitely think so. And I love what you said, Karen, like, especially about the point about her just being busy. I hadn't even thought about putting it specifically that way. Bringing Clare, who's this really self-deluded person, around and putting her in Irene's orbit, it just makes Irene, I think, a lot more aware of her own self-delusions not just about her racial pride or lack of it, but even about her marriage and if she's living the life that she actually wants, or if it's just, to your point, Karen, the life that allows her to have - to allow her to be the toast of something, you know?

BATES: Which Clare threatens that when she comes in...

HARRIS: Right.

BATES: ...Because all of a sudden, all eyes swivel on this newcomer who is so, you know, bubbly and vivacious and so happy to be there among, you know, Black folks. And I think that it upends another one of Irene's perceptions.


LUSE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I am so curious to see what everybody else is going to think.

HARRIS: Me too.

BATES: I will be watching Twitter, and especially Black Twitter, to see what the peoples are saying.

HARRIS: Black Twitter is going to have thoughts (laughter).

LUSE: It's going to explode.

BATES: Explode, yes.


HARRIS: Well, I'm sure we will hear about those thoughts. But if you have your own thoughts about passing, you should definitely let us know. You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh.

And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you both for being here. It was really great to chat with both of you about this.

BATES: That was terrific.

LUSE: I had so much fun.

HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we'll see you all tomorrow.

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