The Secret Toll of Racial Ambiguity

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When Rebecca Hall read Nella Larsen’s groundbreaking 1929 novel, “Passing,” over a decade ago, she felt an intense, immediate attachment to it. The story seemed to clarify so much that was mysterious about her own identity — the unnameable gaps in her family history that shaped her life in their very absence, the way a sinkhole in the road distorts the path of traffic blocks away.

The novel follows Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two light-skinned Black women who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood and shared a friendship complicated by differences in class and social status. When Clare’s father died, she was sent off to live with white relatives, while Irene went on to become firmly ensconced in the vibrant Black artistic and cultural community of 1920s Harlem, wife to a Black doctor and mother to two dark-skinned young boys. One day, while passing for convenience on the rooftop restaurant of a whites-only hotel, Irene is recognized by a beautiful blond woman, who turns out to be Clare — who now not only lives her life as a white woman but is also mother to a white-passing daughter and married to a bigoted man who has no clue about her mixed-race heritage. The friends’ reunion crackles with tension, charged with curiosity, envy and longing.

When Clare asks Irene if she has ever thought about passing in a more permanent way herself, Irene responds disdainfully: “No. Why should I?” She adds, “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want.” And maybe it’s true that the respectable, high-status life Irene has built in Harlem encompasses everything a serious woman, committed to lifting up her race, should want. But Clare’s sudden presence begins to raise a sense of dangerous possibility within Irene — one of unacknowledged desires and dissatisfactions. When she sees the ease with which Clare re-enters and ingratiates herself within Black society, it threatens Irene’s feeling of real, authentic belonging.

Raised in England within the elite circles of classical theater, Hall, who is 39, had her first introduction to the concept of racial “passing” in the pages of Larsen’s novel. “I was spending time in America, and I knew that there had been vague, but I mean really vague, talk about my mother’s ethnicity,” Hall explained over the phone this spring. Her voice is calm and poised, with a warm polish to it, and she tends to speak in composed paragraphs. Over the year that we had corresponded, Hall hadn’t been acting much and had instead spent time writing screenplays from the Hudson Valley home that she shares with her daughter and her husband, the actor Morgan Spector. “Sometimes she would intimate that maybe there was African American ancestry, or sometimes she would intimate that there was Indigenous ancestry. But she didn’t really know; it wasn’t available to her.”

Hall grew up steeped in performance: Her father, Sir Peter Hall, was known for founding the Royal Shakespeare Company and serving as the director of the Royal National Theater for many years, and possessed what she describes as a preternatural ability to know when and how an actor could be gently pushed into an even better performance. Her mother, Maria Ewing, an American raised in Detroit, is one of opera’s most celebrated sopranos, famous for her daring portrayal of Salome in Richard Strauss’s production, in which she followed the Oscar Wilde-penned stage directions to the letter and went nude onstage.

After her parents divorced in 1990, Hall lived for many years with her mother in a manor in the English countryside, where she remembers rooms filled with the sound of jazz on vinyl, her mother making herself at home in the relative isolation and remoteness of an adopted country. “I was sort of brought up to believe that I was this — all of which is true, by the way — privileged, upper-middle-class, sort of bohemian well-educated white girl from a very prestigious family background,” Hall said. “And that was sort of where it stopped. And when I asked questions to my mother about her background in Detroit and her family,” Hall said, her voice low and firm, “she left it with an ‘I don’t want to dwell on the past.’”

Until a friend pointed her to Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” Hall had no way of naming her intuition that these gaps in her family history were narratively charged — but reading it was a “gut punch.” “I felt deeply challenged and confused,” Hall recalled. “And the only way I could actually process it, for me, was to sit down and adapt it. I didn’t, at the time, think, I’m going to adapt it, because I know it’s going to make a killer film and I’m going to direct it. I really didn’t. It was sort of personal and quiet, and I did it in 10 days.” Then she stowed it away in a drawer for the better part of a decade.

Margot Hand, a friend and a producer of “Passing,” the film that was eventually made from that screenplay and that opens theatrically in the United States on Oct. 27 and streams on Netflix beginning on Nov. 10, remembers watching Hall on the set of “Permission,” a film they were both involved in, and noticing how knowledgeable she was about the setup and composition of the shots. When she asked Hall whether she had ever considered directing, she replied that there was only one movie she could imagine herself making as her first film: an adaptation of a novel from the 1920s, based on a screenplay she wrote years earlier. Hand told me that the version of the screenplay that was used in filming is essentially identical to the one Hall showed her years ago — one of those rare artistic impulses that emerges whole and intact, like an egg.

As Hall began to consider turning the script into her first directed feature, she knew that much of her vision for the film was nonnegotiable: It had to be shot in black and white, an unpopular choice from the perspective of studios, because black and white can be a harder sell in foreign markets. It had to be shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio that was the default for celluloid film in the 1920s and ’30s but that has since been replaced by wider proportions. And it had to have Black women cast in the lead roles of Irene and Clare — another sticking point in a moment when white actors still command the most star power and box-office revenue. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga signed on early and stayed attached through the years it took to gather the financing for the film, an unusual vote of confidence that Hall credits with the film’s eventually being made.

“It’s a big undertaking to have this be your debut, and it’s still so hard as a female filmmaker to get something made,” Thompson explained to me over the phone. “To know that she would trust me with that, because so much would hinge on my performance, really was such a gift to me.”

Hall was insistent: To film in black and white was a way of honoring the films that she was raised on, which starred strong female leads like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Myrna Loy. And casting Black actors allowed her to conjure the fantasy of a “lost noir film” that might have had a Black actress in a leading role, while nodding to a lineage of films like “Imitation of Life” (1934). Starring the Black actress Fredi Washington, the film is the story of a daughter who breaks her mother’s heart by deciding to pass as white. Some Southern audiences were scandalized by it because Washington’s light skin, combined with the ambiguity of the black-and-white cinematography, made it impossible for them to discern whether the actress was truly Black or truly white.

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in ‘‘Passing.’’
Netflix

But each of these compositional choices also functions to amplify the internal tension of the narrative, to pressurize the pull of Irene and Clare’s relationship. In black and white, the viewer becomes hyperattuned to the shades of gray that form the bulk of the visual image, an anxious gatekeeper perceiving similarity and difference at the same time. In the unconventionally narrowed screen, the two women’s bodies are continually in relation, one occluding, the other hidden, the distance between them always palpable. As Hall says, the framing “forces the face literally into the center of the frame, constantly. And so it constantly says, loud and clear, that this is a movie about faces and how we see them and watch them being seen.” In this aspect ratio, she adds, “there’s no room for escape.” For her, the project has been one of self-discovery and self-reckoning: “I’d say that the whole journey from that day when I sat down to write this to now has been a way of me processing and understanding my family better,” Hall says. “It was a bit of an exploration and also something I felt compelled to do for reasons I had no language for.”

For the first half of my own life, I had no language for the sensation of precarious contingency that went along with my multiracial face, a product of a Taiwanese mother who immigrated in the 1980s and an American father with German ancestry. My childhood spanned the 1990s, when multicultural was an aesthetic, a party free of bad vibes. On TV, in the video for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” faces of different races morphed into one another, smiling hugely as they lip-synced the words. In elementary school in central New Jersey, I was asked once a year to bring in a “favorite recipe that shows your heritage” to add to a gradewide cookbook — I turned in the same recipe every time, for pork-and-cabbage dumplings — and on Veterans Day to wear some traditional Taiwanese apparel while sitting on a float that rolled through the park behind my house. Culture was to be celebrated, and as with a good buffet, you could have as much as you wanted, all piled together.

If culture was additive, race was a place for optimism, insofar as its projected irrelevance would free the nation of the problems it had caused. Multiracial people were one mechanism through which that liberation would be accomplished: Their existence, and their acceptance and success in America, would be evidence that the country had left behind the violence and inequity of its past. If the nation couldn’t achieve racial equality through the political process, then citizens could do it themselves by creating a new kind of person.

Being a symbol of racial and cultural optimism is a strange sign to live under. Your beauty signifies the rightness of the coming transition, its aesthetic balance; your flexibility, empathy and intermingled whiteness comfort those who fear the loss of place or privilege in the coming demographic shift. You are a bridge between the genes of your mother and the genes of your father, a bridge between their cultures — a bridge being a structure that others can use to cross something hazardous. You are a link between past and present that somehow carries forward none of the old grudges.

But in the classroom and on the playground, my racial ambiguity didn’t feel like something to celebrate. At some times, I felt illegible and unseen; at others, I felt that my inharmonious features — the unusual shape of my eyes, my odd accent and the gaps in my knowledge of either culture — were bizarrely visible. Other children and some adults asked about me, speculated about me, tried to puzzle through my racial and cultural identity. And in the estrangement I felt in the towns we moved to, surrounded mostly by white people and sensing my mother’s own melancholia at being stranded far from her home country and the languages she was most comfortable living in, I found little in my racial identity that I could use as an anchor.

One day when I was 16, alone in the school library during lunch hour, I came upon “Passing” and, like Hall, found it strangely, alarmingly moving. It gave shape and language to the racial ambivalence I experienced that was difficult to place within the optimistic rhetoric that surrounded me. The precarity that Clare and Irene live with, one walking a tightrope between two worlds designated as incommensurable and the other clutching at the apparent safety of a singular, grounded identity, spoke to my own fear of a catastrophic mobility, the feeling that if I didn’t find some way to root myself firmly to one world or the other, I might never find a way to belong anywhere. Texts are always haunted by the unseen — in basic terms, they work to conjure in the mind what they can only point at in words — but this entire book was fueled by invisible, scarcely apprehended drives that seemed to come from society, that spectral presence that moves us all in difficult-to-identify ways.

As I read George Hutchinson’s “In Search of Nella Larsen,” the most comprehensive biography of the writer, I found a life that encompassed, at different times, the public-facing dutifulness of Irene Redfield and the lonesome, destructive freedom of Clare Kendry. A mysterious and remote figure who left inconsistent traces in the public record, Larsen struggled all her life to find her place among the categories available to her. The daughter of a white Danish seamstress and a Black cook from the Danish West Indies, Larsen spent her early years in an interracial sliver of Chicago where all kinds of people commingled in saloons and brothels, far from the buttoned-up neighborhoods of elite white and elite Black society. When her mother married another white immigrant from Denmark and gave birth to her second daughter, Larsen’s skin tone prevented the family from establishing themselves in one of the newer, less precarious neighborhoods dominated by working-class white immigrants. After years of tension navigating an increasingly segregated city, her mother sent her to study at an elite, all-Black teacher-training program in Tennessee, where she was expelled after a year, probably for violating the dress code. She returned to Denmark, where she lived for a time as a child.

With her Scandinavian roots and little direct connection to the legacy of slavery that defined much of the African American experience, and because she came from a poor background, Larsen never felt fully at home in elite all-Black social circles. After she went to nursing school and became the first Black librarian to attend the New York Public Library’s prestigious library school, her first publications were selections of Danish children’s games and songs. The novelist Walter White, part of the literary community she had begun to associate with, encouraged her to write a novel, and eventually, she wrote two: the quasi-autobiographical “Quicksand” and her second and last published novel, “Passing.” She became one of the most celebrated — and maligned — writers of the Harlem Renaissance, insisting on a social circle that included the controversial white author Carl Van Vechten, whose writings had been deemed exploitative by many Black critics.

In her work, Larsen complicated traditional notions of morality or race loyalty. She sometimes wrote about white people, as in the unpublished domestic thriller set in Boston that she wrote and rewrote in her last years as a working writer, as if trying to prove that colored people could enter the minds and lives of white people. After years of disappointments — her physicist husband was having an affair with a white co-worker, and one after another the manuscripts she submitted were rejected by publishers — Larsen retreated. Without telling the remnants of her literary circle, she moved to a different apartment down the block and became unreachable to her friends and colleagues. She quietly returned to nursing and died in the company of colleagues who had little idea that she had been a writer at all.

The unusual shape of Larsen’s story, riddled with holes and obscurities, has led many to misread her. When her work was rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s and began to appear on syllabuses, biographers claimed she had embellished her Danish heritage in order to distance herself from African American culture and present herself as European, and therefore more sophisticated. Other critics suggested that she left her literary life in order to begin passing as white. In reality, the proof of her connection to Denmark only required more care and effort to unearth, and though she once boasted in a letter to friends of having managed to have lunch in an upscale whites-only Southern restaurant, Hutchinson argues that she never tried to pass in any deeper, more deliberate way. But the misinterpretations of Larsen and her work point to her predicament: Even as she attained significant success as a writer, she left too few traces on paper to ensure that she would be read accurately. She remained enigmatic, illegible to most.

In early August, I took a ride share, a ferry and a public bus to a quiet corner of Martha’s Vineyard to meet Hall at the first in-person festival event she had attended in over a year and a half. Though “Passing” had found distribution and been featured at the Sundance Film Festival, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival would be the first place where an audience gathered to watch and discuss it together. It was the weekend of Barack Obama’s much-publicized 60th-birthday party, a celebration that would have brought hundreds of guests to the Vineyard, before it was scaled down amid right-wing criticism and Covid concerns. I walked past rows of newly painted and neatly hedged houses that looked out onto a still, grassy bay where over 400 years earlier an English explorer from Bristol anchored, traded with the native Wampanoag people and “enjoyed terrifying them with the sound of his cannon,” according to a 1923 book on the history of the island.

Hall appeared on the wraparound porch of her bayside hotel in a dark button-up shirt and slim pants — casual, but in a different way from the bright whites and pale colors that covered much of the island. Hall had recently taken part in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series, “Finding Your Roots” (the episode will air next year), and filled in some of the lacunas in her family history that had made elements of her own life feel incomplete or difficult to comprehend. She had shown a version of her film to her mother, sparking conversations that they weren’t able to have in the decades preceding. And “Passing” had been sold to Netflix for almost $17 million, a deal that would guarantee the film the sort of broad audience and promotional support rarely given to intricate, demanding art foregrounding Black women.

The process of funding the film had been long and difficult — multiple studios offered Hall funding if she agreed to film in color, but she turned those offers down. Many months ago, Hall felt resigned to the idea that the film would always be a niche artifact, telling herself: “If I have to make it for nothing and it sells for nothing and nobody ever sees it, then so be it. This is the film that I want to make.” She now felt “a bit smug,” and a bit shocked, at the idea that art had won out.

Hall’s adaptation cuts to the quick of the novel and transfers the shifting, unsettling quality of Larsen’s text back onto the viewer’s shoulders. The film delves into the gray zone of seeing, priming the viewer to become aware of the way his or her own perception is positioned and constructed. Under the intensive, focused gaze of the film’s long shots, Thompson and Negga deliver performances dense with desire and repulsion. Thompson plays Irene with turbulent restraint, her silences heavy and her speech shaped and structured by unseen constraints, while Negga’s Clare is dazzling and appetitive — her mobility, and the zest with which she transgresses boundaries of race and class, expose the falseness of the racial categories upheld by white and Black alike.

The film feels timeless, closer kin to the moody, claustrophobic psychological landscape of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” or the taut, covert romance of Todd Haynes’s “Carol” than to other films that depict the same period. In this way, though set with care and historical fidelity in the 1920s, it’s not a film about the past or even about the social conditions of Larsen’s America, but about the way choices made during Larsen’s time reverberate through succeeding generations. It highlights the psychic afterlife of racial trauma — the quiet holes pressed into the psyche by self-denial.

Like some long-limbed people, Hall has a tendency to fold herself up on the furniture in a disarming way, tucking her feet beneath her on the wicker sofa as she held a cup of green tea that I never saw her drink from. The researchers on “Finding Your Roots,” she told me, traced her mother’s side of the family tree as far back as her great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. She learned that her great-grandfather, whose name was John William Ewing, was born into slavery but found government work post-abolition in Washington, and even gave the toast for Frederick Douglass at a banquet in his honor. Her great-grandmother was a free woman of color, descended from one of only 5,000 Black men who fought on the side of the rebels during the Revolutionary War. But against the background of so much lineage lost and recovered was the discovery of the exact point at which the narrative had broken. “The revelation,” she said, “was that it was just my grandfather who passed — just that one act that erased a huge amount of history, including some stuff that’s really extraordinary.” She spoke carefully, pausing often. “The irony is his father was a race man. His father was someone who wanted to uplift.”

I pointed out how rare it was for a person to have the chance to make a decision that so rapidly shifts the path of his descendants, a complex, psychological decision that erased anyone’s ability to find out why he made it. Hall nodded. “And if you know that it happened, it passes on a legacy that’s” — she trailed off, searching for the right term — “so confused, you know? Because if you’re the child of the parent, and you believe them to be doing the right thing, or hiding something by living in secret, then your obligation to the parent is to do what they do.” When I asked if her mother ever told stories about her own father that might shed light on why he chose to pass, or what his experience was like afterward, she told me that her grandfather was an artist and a musician, and this is part of what made them close — her mother learned to sing from imitating records in the basement of the family house. She left home soon after he died when she was 16, Hall said, gaining admission to the Cleveland Institute of Music against the odds and later moving to the Barbizon Hotel in New York, and eventually to Europe, where she sang in Salzburg, in Milan, in London.

Hall didn’t know if her grandfather was a sort of anchor for her mother, whether his death caused her to leave home. But her mother did talk, Hall said, about an event that was very disturbing for her. “Her father was driving her home from somewhere. And they got out of the car, and there was a neighbor who my mom described as having a long yellow braid on one side. She was a white lady who had always been very nice to them. But as they were getting out of the car, this woman just turned around and said, ‘Why don’t you die?’” The woman added a toxic racial epithet. “And worse, that was not long before he died.” Her mother was very confused. She would tell this story, Hall said, but mostly avoided speaking about that time. I find myself haunted by it. I include it here even though I’m not sure what exactly the story signifies. What had happened to transform the neighbor’s view of her grandfather? Had her grandfather’s history of passing come to the surface, however carefully he hid it? In the end, it’s a narrative with a deep hole at its center, one that mirrors others in Hall’s family, a break in the telling that can’t be filled in through any amount of genealogical research or archival work.

At the start of the golden hour, I made my way across the island to a reception on the deck of a waterfront restaurant, a celebration of the screening that would happen in a couple of short hours. Guests were already there, piling plates with beet salad and seafood. The atmosphere was warm and easy. When Hall and Spector appeared, a line formed in front of them, and I listened from nearby as they traded thanks with producers and attendees. A woman with straightened black hair, who appeared to be in her 50s or 60s, approached. She thanked them for coming and then added that the film was meaningful to her because her aunts lived their lives passing as white. “Because they passed and we didn’t, they didn’t want to be seen with us,” she explained.

Hall’s film has cracked open a public conversation about colorism, privilege and secrets. On Twitter, people are sharing stories and black-and-white photographs of a grandmother’s cousins who moved out of state, great-aunts who sneaked back to see their family in secret, relatives who lost their jobs when co-workers informed management about their identities: a public airing of what in Hall’s family was once closely held. Recently one of her mother’s sisters reached out: She said that they never really had language to understand the hidden context that shaped their family, and she thanked her for giving it to them.

Other responses pointed to the ways that racial categories continue to shape our collective thinking. When the trailer for the film debuted on social media, it prompted a deluge of tweets. Some shared memes featuring the movie title alongside photos of multiracial celebrities like Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph and Thandiwe Newton — the implication being that these lighter-skinned actresses would be a better fit for the roles or that they were continuing to benefit from the ability to pass as white in Hollywood and beyond. That so much of the discussion circulated around Thompson’s and Negga’s ability to successfully pass as white felt surreal, a return to a type of racial scrutiny that seems antithetical to the project of both the book and its adaptation. One Twitter user explained that in Larsen’s day, passing did not necessarily mean persuading others that you were white, only persuading them that you were “not-Black.” Another suggested that the director was trying to heighten tensions with the casting, reminding the viewers at all times of the possibility that the characters would be found out.

Emily V. Aragones/Netflix

“There’s a real irony in this, in that the people who can really pass like me are challenged sometimes about whether they’re really, truly Black,” Mat Johnson, an African American novelist of mixed descent, told me over the phone. “So we have this paradox where some of the same people who would be like ‘Well, he’s not really Black,’ or ‘She’s not really Black,’ also feel real ownership about the idea of passing being a part of the African American experience. It’s interesting because even that discussion is about who owns the story of passing.”

“Passing” is re-entering the culture at a moment when being multiracial is viewed in a more sober, realistic light than it was when I was growing up. In recent works like Johnson’s graphic novel “Incognegro,” Danzy Senna’s “New People” and Brit Bennett’s best-selling “The Vanishing Half,” authors have rewritten the literary tropes of Black passing to probe its blind spots and challenge the notion that the color line has been erased within American society. If earlier notions of a cohesive “mixed race” identity failed to materialize, who could be surprised? No grand unifying theory of multiraciality can account for the multiple, highly specific ways in which individuals reconcile their own hybrid backgrounds, or for the particular way in which Blackness resists assimilation into both whiteness and the middle ground of the mixed.

“I’ve seen Black people around me getting interested in their family history start to do their research and realize that to be Black in America necessarily means having some non-Black ancestry,” Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of the novel “Libertie,” told me in a recent conversation. “Genetically, many of us have about 25 percent white DNA within us. To be Black, this thing that we say is readable and defined as necessarily separate from whiteness, literally usually means for most of us that we are, in fact, intertwined with it,” she said. “Hopefully what that will do is force people to have more complicated discussions about what it means to share all of this DNA when we still have this system set up to reward those who are closest or closer to whiteness.”

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve noticed more people bypassing the conundrum of what it means to be racially mixed in order to define themselves in terms of who they feel themselves to be, how they lay claim to their cultures, how they themselves conceptualize racial boundaries. Many choose to identify as wholly Asian, or wholly Black, or to identify as multiple full identities rather than fractions of a diminishing whole. You could say that there are potentially as many racial identities as there are racial stories, and the more fulfilling work is to dwell in these stories rather than in their categorization. In the end, narrative may the best tool we have for binding together the disparate elements that make up the self.


Alexandra Kleeman is a professor at the New School and the author of two novels, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” and “Something New Under the Sun.” Carly Zavala is a photographer who was born in Venezuela and is based in Brooklyn. She was a nurse for 15 years and is known for her play with light and shadow to create emotive and moody images.