BY Leila Latif in Columnists , Film | 10 FEB 21

Rebecca Hall’s ‘Passing’ and the Legacy of Colourism in Hollywood

A Sundance highlight, the director’s debut is a nuanced exploration of lives either side of the ‘colour line’

BY Leila Latif in Columnists , Film | 10 FEB 21

The 2021 Sundance film festival took its commitment to diversity seriously. Fifty percent of its films were made by female directors, 51 percent by people of colour and 15 percent by LGBTQ+ filmmakers. From Summer of Soul, Questlove’s documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to Ailey, a look at visionary choreographer Alvin Ailey, the programme featured Black stories filled with beauty, joy and nuance.

Amongst the festival’s highlights was Passing, based on Nella Larsen’s eponymous 1929 Harlem renaissance novella and adapted by Rebecca Hall in her directorial debut. Hall comes from a long line of white-passing African Americans and her personal connection to the controversial subject is evident in her subtle and nuanced handling of the material. Shot in black and white to highlight the arbitrary nature of the colour divide, the film looks at the relationship between Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson), two pale-skinned women who knew each other as children in Chicago and unexpectedly reunite in New York. Irene is happily married to Brian (Andre Holland) a Black doctor in Harlem, occasionally pulling down the brim of a cloche hat to ‘pass’ on trips to boutiques and restaurants in white neighbourhoods. Meanwhile Clare has dyed her hair icy blonde and transformed her cadence to fully pass as white. She has married John (Alexander Skarsgård) a wealthy businessman who openly ‘hates negroes’ and affectionately nicknames Clare ‘nig’ in reference to her curiously bronze complexion. The women become entrenched within one another’s lives and their identities slowly unravel. 

Nella Larsen, Passing,
Nella Larson, Passing, 1929. reprint by Norton Critical Edition, 2007. Courtesy: Norton Critical Edition

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and activist Alice Walker is credited with coining the term ‘colourism’, in a 1983 essay, to describe the prejudices uniquely targeted towards Black people with darker skin and view that pale-skinned blackness is more desirable. This is a seed that was planted by white supremacy but one that was nurtured and grew within the Black community. Though Clare and Irene have chosen different paths, both luxuriate in their paleness. Irene is titillated by her ability to pass for white and flattered by mentions of her paleness, which starkly contrasts with that of her dark-skinned housekeeper. Colourism is still evident in contemporary Hollywood, where even successful dark-skinned Black women have their identities inexorably tied to slavery and abuse. Jodie Turner Smith’s silver screen debut in Queen and Slim came from a reprehensible casting call, widely circulated on social media, for an actress that was ‘brown-skinned, if she were a slave she would have worked in the fields’. Whole books could be written about the disrespect faced by Viola Davis, who was described as older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful’ than Kerry Washington or Halle Berry in a 2014 New York times article about her Emmy Award-winning role in How to Get Away with Murder (2014–20). Appearing on cover of Vanity Fair last summer, the first ever shot by a Black photographer, Davis appeared luminescent in a backless blue gown. But on closer examination the image recapitulated the associations with slave narratives: the inspiration for the portrait was The Scourged Back, an 1863 photograph of a formerly enslaved man, his back turned to the camera to expose the deep furrows and criss-crossing scars of whiplash. Our keenness, within the Black community, to return dark-skinned Black women to slavery narratives speaks to an insidious racial politics at play. 

Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Andre D. Wagner

The effects of colourism exist wherever Black women exist, from the lyrics of Beyoncé, episodes of Blackish (2014–ongoing), children’s books by Lupita Nyong’o, casting of X-Men movies and disputes between the Real Housewives of Potomac (2016–ongoing). As Black women gain the platform to make art for a wide audience, the discourse has reached the mainstream. Brit Bennett’s best-selling novel, The Vanishing Half, published last summer, follows a pair of ‘creamy skinned, hazel eyed’ twins who leave home as teenagers and ultimately live their lives on opposite sides of the racial divide. The consequences of this, both externally and internally, are profound. Stella, who chooses to live as a white woman accrues wealth and privilege but lives burdened by self-loathing, anxiety and an intense distrust of the Black people who may see through her facade. Her sister, Desiree, remains within the Black community; however, even there, her paleness confers distinction and privilege. There is a bias towards an aesthetic proximity to whiteness even without explicitly passing over into it. 

Viola Davis, Vanity Fair cover, 2020. Courtesy: Dario Calmese and Vanity Fair

Passing is an exceptionally beautiful film, filled with texture and ambiguity depicting deep wells of internal conflict and broader societal ills. Negga’s performance is extraordinary, imbuing Clare with a brittle femme fatale facade around of core of tragic fragility. There is confident, grown-up artistry to Hall’s filmmaking and a gentle lyricism to the dialogue and composition of each frame.

Main image: Rebecca Hall, Passing, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Sundance Institute; photographEdu Grau

Leila Latif is a writer and a film critic based in London, UK.