Mysteries of the Visible

November 14, 2021   •   By Anne Anlin Cheng

THE LEAST INTERESTING QUESTION one can ask about a story of passing is: Is she or isn’t she? If, reading Light in August, one spends the entire time wondering whether Joe Christmas is really black or white, then one would’ve missed much of Faulkner’s meditation on the ongoing afterlife of slavery in the American racial imagination. Similarly, if one watches the film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing in order to see whether a black woman can convincingly pass for white (and be disappointed when that turns out not to be the case), then one would’ve already fallen into the trap of a racial biologism-cum-visual schema that Larsen’s great novella was meant to unsettle in the first place. Worse, one would’ve also missed the seductive complexities of Larsen’s exquisite, psychological drama and how she introduces us to the mysteries of the visible.

One of the great challenges of translating Larsen’s text into film is that the latter, as a medium, promises indexicality: a direct path from the visible world of the film to the real and the material. A film version of Passing thus tempts viewers to pin racial meaning down to the dominion of the visible. Yet so much of what is haunting about Larsen’s novella is precisely the way it shows how racial meaning gets produced and circulated, not through the merely visible or the indexical, but the oblique and the imagined: how that which flaunts (a verb that Larsen likes to associate with her tragic heroine Clare Kendry) can obscure. The whole point of “passing” is that it profoundly disturbs our certitude in what the visible can tell us; it is an act and a phenomenon that questions how we come to know something. In other words, so much of our thinking about race and racial difference is dominated by the scrim of skin color — what Frantz Fanon famously called the racial epidermal schema — and by accompanying, binaristic ideas of authenticity versus deceit. This focus on skin color, however, has blinded us to the multiple ways in which the visible gives off meaning. Is the visible as available as we assume it is? What happens when we contest the terms of the visible?

In Larsen’s novella, racial meaning emerges not only, or even primarily, through the tell-all of skin color, but rather through its entanglement with a host of other allusive and elusive signifiers, including signs of class, kinship, gender, beauty, and even the company that you keep. Irene can enter the segregated Drayton Hotel partially because she arrived in a cab and was carrying purchases from upscale shops, signs of middle-class privilege. Clare’s aunts provided a great alibi for her because they are “white” and “very religious,” the latter being as important as the former. Clare’s sexuality (her feminine wiles, that laugh that haunts Irene) helps to facilitate her racial passing even when her husband claims she is “getting darker and darker.” John Bellew discovers the “truth” about Irene and then, by association, his wife, not through skin color, but by the person(s) they are with.

Larsen constantly asks us to consider: How is it that we know what we think we are seeing? What are the conditions under which we see?

The question of “Does he know” — of who’s in the know and who’s not — suffuses the film with an unspoken and constant epistemological crisis, one that the assurance of the visible does not put to rest. In the film version, director Rebecca Hall manages to short circuit that expectation between what we see and what we know through several clever cinematic strategies that tug us away from the coercion of the visible. First, consider the casting choices of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, whose appearances in the pre-released movie trailer generated an early storm of social media responses, most of which wondered whether Hall couldn’t have found actresses who passed more easily as white. Of course she could have, but then we would have missed out on the uneasiness and dangers of passing. Seeing a white actress in a segregated white space would mitigate the threat and risk of such a situation for a black subject. The refusal to “typecast,” so to speak, also creates an unspoken frisson for the viewer between the fact versus the fantasy of racial legibility. More importantly, Hall’s casting choices have the added effect of shifting and suturing the movie viewer, not to the default white gaze, but to the point of view of the black-gaze-in-the-know. This is what Irene sees.

Second, Hall’s clever uses of self-conscious tropes of vision and camera angles in the film work to destabilize the certitude and the the one-dimensionality of what is visible: the uses of reflective mirrors; the occasional dip into an out-of-focus lens during moments of psychical instability for the characters; a sudden blinding ray of sunlight streaming through a window; a misting snow fall; a tree dappled car window that shades the human faces within; an angled view that rights itself a second later, leaving Irene (and us by extension) unsure of what she did or did not see.

Finally, but not least: The quality of light in this film is probably its most poignant and intriguing intervention into the reign of the visible. Hall’s choice to make the movie in black and white lends the film a sense of datedness and offers a quick, ironic commentary on the black-and-white world that traps Larsen’s characters. But, upon closer look, the movie is not simply, or at least not straightforwardly, black and white. Instead, the film is on the edge of being over-exposed, treating its subjects to a kind of brutal whitewash that at times throws them into stark relief and at times makes it hard to see them. The resulting contrast creates a chiaroscuro effect that insists, simultaneously, on the incompatibility between blackness and whiteness and on how black Americans nonetheless must constantly, even in their own homes, navigate this impossible space.

Larsen’s story is, above all else, a psychodrama. The central theme of racial passing is itself a kind of red herring, distracting us from other forms of passing taking place in the story: economic passing, gender and sexual passing, as well as the self-deceptions that we all practice at one point or another. What’s going on between Irene and Clare — a fraught web of desire, envy, identification and disidentification, projection and internalization, attachment and rejection — exceeds and yet is also wholly bound to their identities as light-skinned black women. We might think of Passing as a meditation on the crisis of boundary: not just social and racial, but also sexual, familial, and ontological. (Is this why Clare always drops the “I” in Irene’s name, as if they were somehow already entwined, as if she has already co-opted part of Irene into herself?) The sense of claustrophobia pervades the film, often projected onto its sense of space — the threateningly white and overly bright space of the tea room in the Drayton, the turns and twists of Irene’s comfortable middle-class home that she carefully curated and yet from which she nonetheless has to escape to take a breath on the front steps, a gorgeous scene of snowfall spelling both freedom and suffocation. These all labor to press us up against the story’s intense awareness of the fragility of social, familial, and psychological boundaries.

Even Clare’s celebrated beauty, which should be the clearest given in the plot, in fact heightens rather than calms this crisis of uncertainty that infuses this story and this film. To begin with, we have to acknowledge that beauty for women of color is always a dilemma, a wounded thing. For the racialized woman of color, the possibility of owning beauty is worth nothing and everything. It’s worthless because Western philosophic and aesthetic tradition has already deemed black beauty to be impossible. It’s worth everything because the beauty myth tells us that female beauty can compensate for or cover over any lack of difference, even racial difference. Perfection, after all, means, completion: the lack of lack.

Yet Clare Kendry’s beauty, which we assume helps to facilitate her passing, in Larsen’s words and in Hall’s reenactment, tends to scramble rather than secure racial meaning. Larsen herself describes Clare’s beauty in terms of doubleness, of mélange, rather than purity. Larsen repeatedly notes Clare’s beauty, not for its appearance of pure whiteness, but for its contrast against darkness: her “bright” hair against her startlingly “dark” eyes. According to Larsen, what is most “compelling” about Clare is the “mystery” of her beauty, that unlikely combination of, in Larsen’s words, “ivory and black.” Her beauty is thus precisely not her whiteness but that whiteness’s teasing proximity to blackness. In this way, John Bellew’s nickname for his wife, “Nig,” reveals much more than his own contradictory desires; it also names the very difference that is Clare’s loveliness. What is enthralling about Clare is not her clarity but her alterity, a presence that denounces yet reveals its own difference. Clare is, above all, a visual conundrum, and she seduces through that very indeterminancy. Hall’s refusal of racial literalness honors this insight in the original novel. In both book and movie, the value of Clare’s beauty rests not in its ability to sustain a fetish (such as Bellew’s desire for a blackness he loathes yet desires) but in its capacity to disrupt meaning and value: to conflate what is recognized and what is denied. What should have been the condition of vital distinction thematized by the plot turns out to be none other than the very conditions for the impossibility of distinction.

In the novella, Larsen offers a couple of moments foreshadowing Clare’s fate, most notably in the scene where Irene drops and shatters a porcelain white teacup (Clare is often described as having porcelain-like ivory skin). Hall, on the other hand, gives us so many of these moments that, by the time we get to the climax, we get the sense that Clare’s fall, both literal and symbolic, is over-determined. There’s the man who fainted on the pavement from heat stroke at the beginning of the movie; the tea pot that Irene drops at a gathering (with Hugh Wentworth apologizing, “I must’ve pushed you,” and the subsequent joke about how Irene finally found a way to free herself from this valuable but disliked object by “breaking it”); then the moment when Irene herself leans so far out a window in her own bedroom that we fear she will fall and, instead, a flower pot is dropped and shattered. For those who know the story before watching the film, these foreshadowing scenes are insistent and contribute to the oppressive atmosphere in the movie, pushing us ineluctably toward Clare’s death and reminding us not only that the tragic mulatto must die but also that Irene’s survival is predicated on the erasure of the part of herself that is Clare.

Clare must die for Irene’s middle-class life to continue, not only because she passes for white and threatens the racial order, but because she is the very sign of that social order’s fundamental alterity: the difference that flaunts, a flame (another word Larsen likes to use for Clare) that must be put out. When we see Irene at the end of the movie sheltered in Brian’s arms, her head hidden in his chest, clutching his lapels, shaking with reaction, we have to wonder: Is she horrified by what happened to Clare and/or is she shocked by the force of her own psychical desire? This is Irene’s story, always has been.

The ambiguity of the story’s ending is central to the integrity of Irene’s psyche. Did Clare fall accidentally? Was it suicide? Did Bellew push her out the window physically or by the sheer projectile force of his anger? What about Irene, who was right next to Clare by the window? In the movie, Hall gives us an exquisite moment of eye contact between Irene and Clare as Bellew forces his way into the room. In that gaze between women, we see recognition, resignation, love, and regret. Hall also inserts a quick shot of Irene’s arm around — or in front of? — Clare’s waist. We cannot tell if the arm reached out to encircle or to push. The whole dramatic scene must remain ambivalent, multiple: a scene of expulsion, ejection, rejection, and a scene of love and attachment. Indeed, it is one of Larsen’s most powerful insights in the novella that love — between the liberal patron and “the Negro,” between parent and child, between husband and wife, and between women — skirts the edges of fetishization and recognition, care and curation, admiration and consumption, protection and murder.

The psychical and emotional failures of distinction — how we fail to tell the difference between love and hatred, how we preserve and recognize the other by appropriation or reification, how we confuse the desire to have and the desire to be — and not just a question of racial legibility are what drive the psychological drama of this story. In the world of Larsen’s Passing, to be an object of discrimination, even when you have all the outward armors of middle-class respectability, is to suffer multiple crises of affective indiscrimination: where loving and rejecting, community and segregation, affirmation and objectification can look eerily and troublingly alike.

Raced bodies are always so ineluctably tied to a regime of readability, but what Passing reminds us is that the raced body, like race itself, is an enigma of visual experience. And it is in allowing her film to accommodate this insight that Hall’s adaptation is truly worth seeing.

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Anne Anlin Cheng is professor of English at Princeton University. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief; Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface; and Ornamentalism.