I’ve Been Thinking About The Way Tessa Thompson Looks at Ruth Negga in “Passing” A Lot

It’s on purpose that Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing, based on Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novella of the same name, opens with a gaze.

Irene (Tessa Thompson) has taken respite in a segregated hotel tea room, her first and only time successfully passing as a white woman. Already its clear that she’s uncomfortable, quite nearly jumpy at the idea of being caught. And of course she is, locking eyes with an old childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who is also passing for white.

Irene scans Clare’s body. Gazing at her feet, her legs, and finally, her face. Clare accepts Irene’s stare, unflinching, until they speak. And so it begins, the erotic desire of Passing that thumps hand-in-hand with its blanket of suspense. Filmed in black and white, stylized and framed in 1.33 aspect ratio, Passing finds comfort in its own restraint. Through its devastating ending, the motivations and desires of its central players are never clearly explained. Instead it engages with ambiguity as if it’s shadow play.

Irene and Clare, both light-skinned Black women who knew each other as children, fell out of touch as adults. Clare now passes as white full time with a blatantly racist white husband (it would be comical, if he wasn’t so dangerous). Irene is a part of the Black upper class of 1920s Harlem Elite, with a doctor husband. Both women’s privileges are toyed with and displayed; Irene at times displaying colorist and class bias against her house help, while Clare’s isolation from the Black community she grew up with causes depression and malaise. Reunited, the friends spend increasing time together — at the house, running errands, and nights dancing at Harlem clubs.

Passing has me in such a chokehold, I still don’t know where to start. There’s the craft of the storytelling, the questions it presents about understanding race for once from a Black gaze. It’s singular in it’s grab and should be on the short list for any awards season conversation. But more than anything, I can’t stop thinking about the way that Tessa Thompson looks at Ruth Negga.

This is a film about the limitations of the closet. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tessa Thompson addresses its underlying tensions directly, “Passing to me is as much about ‘passing’ for any of the norms, and I think the book is talking about the performance of gender and sexuality to be sure.” In the same interview, Ruth Negga continues Thompson’s train of thought, “There are levels of attraction in relationships that are not black and white.” The connection between Irene and Clare is charged. The film luxuriates in tension as the women observe each other.

In one scene, sitting at a side table in the club, Irene watches from behind as Clare dances. Following Irene’s eyes, the camera pans — slowly – down Clare’s body. Noticing the attention, Clare gives Irene her hand. Holding her breath, Irene reaches out to hold it. Then, immediately, she pulls away when her husband approaches.

In her preliminary meeting with Thompson and Negga, Rebecca Hall asked, “‘Do you see this as, you know, are you getting anything [sexual]?’ And they both immediately were like, ‘Of course.’”

At the same time, Hall describes, “I tried to shoot it not in an obvious way, because that wouldn’t be true to the book, and also I think it would be too heavy-handed in terms of what is being suggested.”

On this — “that wouldn’t be true to the book” — I vehemently disagree with Hall. Nella Larsen’s Passing has long been read as a queer text, including by none other than Judith Butler. And with passages such as this, from Irene’s point of view [emphasis my own], it’s hard not to see why:

“She remembered her own little choked exclamation of admiration, when, on coming downstairs a few minutes later than she had intended, she… found Clare there too. Clare, exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting, in a stately gown of shining black taffeta, whose long, full skirt lay in graceful folds about her slim golden feet; her glistening hair drawn smoothly back into a small twist at the nape of her neck; her eyes sparkling like dark jewels.” (Larsen 233)

Irene’s longing for Clare surpasses medium. And in so many ways, there was no actor better suited to bring Irene’s gaze to life than Thompson, who mesmerizes the camera as if time itself stands still in her presence.

For Irene (and, in a bit of erotic three-way tension, equally her husband), Clare has become sunlight that warms their skin and clears dust from the monotony of their lives. Clare, avoiding her own increasingly staunch depression, revels in becoming their manic pixie dream girl in flapper regalia.

There’s so many of them now that it’s become a joke of it’s own, the lesbian yearning films where women in corsets bat their eyes slowly and every graze against each other’s wrist is erotic — Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Favourite, and Carol (which, set in the 1950s, doesn’t actually have a corset in it, but if we are honest with ourselves, it does). I’ve never found myself drawn to them.

And perhaps it could be said (by others, not by me) that Passing has an over reliance on those long, drawn out pauses. That it puts the weight of its shoulders too squarely on Tessa Thompson’s ability to emote from beneath her eyes to make up for a relatively thin script where nothing happens and then, suddenly, everything happens all at once. It could be argued that Ruth Negga’s tour de force performance as Clare would have only been deepened with at least some narrative clarity for her actions — was she genuinely attracted to Irene in return? Were Irene and her husband merely Clare’s playthings? What of the darkness that laid behind her sunny smile as the chaotic tornado consumes Passing’s third act?

But sometimes, it really is about the small things. Time and again, Irene gazes upon the profile of Clare’s face, not breaking eye contact. Feeling heat, Clare looks up. Irene sharply inhales, blushes, and looks away.

And every single time, I finally understood why white lesbians love Carol so much.


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Editor-in-Chief Carmen Phillips is a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer with a PhD in American Studies from New York University. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 383 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. This movie is one of the best well written, well acted and directed films about acknowledgement of lesbian desire I have seen. Imho it easily surpasses Carol and my favourite, The Favourite. This is now above The Favourite, it is my number one. It should rightly clean up the awards, and I really hope that it does.

  2. Oh!! when Irene explains Hugh that “…sometimes there’s a thing that can’t be registered” I remembered every time I locked eyes with another queer person and did the nod™️. I could watch this movie a thousand times!

  3. I will definitely be watching this film. It’s funny because this week I saw a picture of my great grandparents for the first time. My great grandfather was very much white while my great grandmother could pass. I wonder if she did because it would explain them disowning their son for marrying a dark skinned black woman. It was the early 20th century (pre 1920) when they met so no judgment just a lot of questions.

    • In what world could either of these brown skinned black women pass for white? It will take much imagination to watch this film without wondering why the roles where not played by black women who could actually pass.

  4. “the lesbian yearning films where women in corsets bat their eyes slowly and every graze against each other’s wrist is erotic — Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Favourite, and Carol”

    One of these things is not like the others… I’m really not sure The Favourite fits this bill. Has the author seen it?? It’s a period drama with lesbians in but that’s kind of where the resemblance ends.

    Anyway I’m super super excited for Passing and totally agree that the novel is textually just as gay as many ‘actually gay’ novels of its period

    • kinda feels like an aggressive way to assert a question. also, Rachel Weisz’s character totally read to me as yearning for Olivia Coleman’s – the emotion is wrapped up in power, but also that’s the currency of the movie? and no loss of yearning by Emma Stone’s character to be safe, nor Olivia’s to be loved/desired/connected. so i totally get Carmen including it in a period lesbian film round up – even if it’s viewing eroticism through an ironic lens.

  5. Thank you for this gorgeous review, Carmen! I absolutely loved Passing and thought it was a wonderful adaptation of the book. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since watching it. I wasn’t sure if the movie would keep the queer undertones of the book but I thought the cinematography did a lovely job of capturing the way Irene is narrated gazing at and contemplating Clare!
    I had not quite put my finger on it in reading the book, but while watching the movie with another queer friend we both read Irene’s suspicion of an affair as a misinterpretation of her own desire for Clare. She senses “inappropriate” sexual desire and only allows herself to interpret that as something between Clare and her husband.
    I loved reading all of the articles you linked to, too, Carmen, thank you! Really loved this interview done by Uzo Aduba too https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fm0rCMpWfgY

  6. Confession: I have never seen all of Carol. And I only saw Ammonite for Kate. However, I am incredibly intrigued by Passing and this review makes me even more likely to see it. Maybe it’s the inevitability of things ending badly in these period pieces that keeps me away. But maybe this adaptation of a truly beautiful book will be the film that breaks through.

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