— Nella Larsen, Passing
A CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE: that weather, like people, ought to fit. It was this idea of unseasonable warmth — weather out of place, or, at least, out of its proper time — that attracted me to Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, Passing. Although much of the scholarship on Passing foregrounds, quite reasonably, questions of race, class, gender, desire, and their intertwining, I had naïvely convinced myself that Larsen’s work was in fact an example of cli-fi avant la lettre. That her novella was not written in our time of heightened attention to climate crisis saved it, I thought, from the representational and ethico-political demands faced by writers of contemporary climate fiction. No cloying allegory, no preachiness, no apocalyptic warnings, minimal sentimentality.
The arrival of Rebecca Hall’s 2021 film adaptation of Passing gave me an opportunity to consider what difference the passage of time, and the passage between mediums, might make. As a recent adaptation of source material written before the coming-of-age of the contemporary climate movement, Passing (the film) maintains the integrity of the novella’s atmospherics while avoiding the sanctimony of much deliberate climate art (because who needs another reminder that the world is being actively destroyed?).
Yet, my impulse to bring Passing into the cli-fi tradition began to feel misguided, as I slowly realized that neither book nor film were about climate at all; what was really at stake, it seemed, was weather. Weather, unlike climate, is ephemeral, irregular, unpredictable — dare I say passing? Year to year, season to season, there is change. Our efforts to accurately predict the weather testify to its mutability. Climate, by contrast, is meant to be stable, which is why its change is so threatening. Weather is climate come home to roost. Weather is what happens when the abstraction of climate presses up against our tender frames, when it sneaks under our skin. It’s the perspiration on our brows, the chill in our bones.
If we turn from climate fiction to something like weather fiction, we find something less overtly pedagogical and more atmospheric — a cue I take from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s marvelously baroque essay on the marvelously baroque writings of Marcel Proust. In “The Weather in Proust,” Sedgwick identifies in Proust a tension between his “preoccupation with deriving systemic, zero-sum laws from the phenomena of the world,” including and especially weather, and his drive “toward the irreducibly contingent — the saving inexhaustibility of surprise.” Weather, despite our best attempts to pin it down, always eludes our grasp. You go out dressed for a warm, sunny day, only to be pinned down by blustery winds that bring tears to your eyes. Weather, in Sedgwick’s reading of Proust, is always a surprise. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from weather fiction, it’s probably about the importance of wearing layers.
In contrast to Proust, however, Larsen’s Passing is quick, a skinny novella that’s over almost before it even begins. Hall’s adaptation of Passing is far slower — not Proustian slow, thankfully — and not in a bad way. The dynamic atmosphere that Larsen achieves through language seems to take far longer to reproduce in film. But in taking time, Hall’s film successfully foregrounds weather, attuning the viewer and the characters to its generative effects. The film also sacrifices the vivid colors evoked in the novella through memory, opting instead for the intense atmospherics of monochromatic black-and-white. This is particularly telling, in a film about race and about passing, which is therefore, perhaps inescapably, a film about color. In Anne Anlin Cheng’s sharp analysis of both film and novella, she brilliantly points out that “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.” In turning to monochrome, Hall refuses to make race easily legible to the viewer, so that we might instead see how race is diffused into the very atmosphere.
Passing (the film) begins with an episode that — in the novella — is recalled as memory but, on screen, unravels chronologically, as if the remembrance of things past might be spliced out of the realm of the waking dream and placed into a linear narrative. At first, we don’t quite know what we’re looking at, or what we’re hearing, as muffled sounds strain to pierce the thick, hot air. Finally, we can make out the words of a passerby: “Hot enough for you?” The image, rendered foggy by the overwhelming humidity, clears up, and we see a pair of white women in diaphanous dresses, exiting the sidewalk: “Let’s get to the toy store and out of this heat. […] There now, that’s better.”
In the toy store, we meet Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), who is on a quest to find a book for one of her sons. She wears a wide-brimmed hat frequently pulled down over her eyes, and her gaze is consistently averted, a gesture toward the difficulties of passing, and the dangers of being seen. Having failed to find the desired book, she steps out onto the sidewalk and is immediately bathed in intense sunlight. She gestures ineffectively toward the sun, as if to stave off its harsh rays. She then begins to fan herself with her purse. As if all of this — clothing, gesture, light, speech — isn’t enough to indicate to the viewer that it’s unnaturally hot, we see a man collapsed on the sidewalk (presumably from heat stroke) across the street, passersby rushing to his side.
Irene watches, breathing heavily, clutching her chest. The heat is constrictive, suffocating. She jerks her hand up to hail a passing cab and jumps in, continuing to fan herself. This is a white part of town, and her driver is white, but he’s clearly not in on the secret that Irene is Black. After all, he picks her up, and then proceeds to banter amicably: “This heat. Feels like I’m about to pass out myself.” Irene, lacking a clear sense of where to go and dazed from the heat, mumbles about wanting tea. The driver suggests the Drayton Hotel: “They do say as how there’s always a breeze up there.” As they drive away, Irene looks back through the window at the man slumped on the sidewalk, our gaze following hers.
In Passing (the novella), this scene plays out rather differently, as memory, and in an entirely different place: Irene reads a letter in her New York home while thinking back to a sweltering day in Chicago.
Chicago. August. A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays that were like molten rain. A day on which the very outlines of the buildings shuddered as if in protest at the heat. Quivering lines sprang up from baked pavements and wriggled along the shining car-tracks. The automobiles parked at the curbs were a dancing blaze, and the glass of the shop-windows threw out a blinding radiance. Sharp particles of dust rose from the burning sidewalks, stinging the seared or dripping skins of wilting pedestrians. What small breeze there was seemed like the breath of a flame fanned by slow bellows.
The film, by contrast, condenses both time and space by doing away with remembrance and locating all the action in New York. Nevertheless, the atmospherics that emerge through Larsen’s language — shuddering, quivering, baking, wriggling, dancing, throwing, blinding, rising, burning, stinging, searing, dripping, wilting — are conveyed with surprising fidelity through Hall’s monochromatic image, where the qualities of color are sacrificed to the qualities of light, what Cheng calls the film’s “ most poignant and intriguing intervention into the reign of the visible.”
In the novella, the man topples over right in front of Irene, and she finds herself suddenly amid the concerned crowd. She feels the oppressiveness of other people, which contributes to her feeling of being hot: “[D]isagreeably damp and sticky and soiled from contact with so many sweating bodies. […] Suddenly she was aware that the whole street had a wobbly look, and realized that she was about to faint.” The heat follows her all the way to the Drayton, in the form of “the perspiring driver,” “the hot leather seat,” “the boiling traffic,” “the warm breeze stirred up by the moving cab.” The film omits these forms of heat that emerge from contact and movement between bodies, from the traffic of humans and automobiles.
The arrival at the Drayton, in the film, is marked by an imposing edifice into and out of which white couples enter and exit. Whiteness signals access to coolness: in the toy store, into the Drayton. And the ability to pass is also an ability to pass into these white, cool spaces, access to climate control, then and now, being mediated by both class and race. Inside the Drayton, we are greeted by ceiling fans, fronded plants, and a sparse collection of diners. Irene carefully applies powder to her face, checking the results of her work in a compact mirror — seemingly to uphold her ability to pass as white and avoid unpleasantness and even expulsion from the hotel. In the novella, she reapplies her makeup slightly earlier, in the taxi, as she attempts to “repair the damage that the heat and crowds had done to her appearance.” While heat generates the need to pass, it also threatens to undo the very conditions of possibility for passing.
In both film and novella, the trip to the hotel — a short cab ride that feels almost epic — is catalyzed by the unseasonably hot day. If it hadn’t been so hot, Irene wouldn’t have nearly fainted, wouldn’t have hailed a cab, and wouldn’t have been transported to the Drayton at the driver’s suggestion, where she found herself out of place. When weather is truly weather, when it refuses to behave with the regularity of climate, a certain kind of transgression seems to be almost encouraged. We could say that the extreme heat revealed the norms of racial segregation that governed stores, street life, and even hotels in the American city. But weren’t these norms already quite obvious? Did they really need revealing? Irene, after all, knows that she’s crossing a line. She’s always known exactly where that line was. Maybe, instead, we might say that extreme heat deepened the effects of racism, made it yet harder to live with. And in that moment of deepening, passing can come to feel more necessary. The heat, in a way, nudged Irene over that line.
At this point, we might also ask, Is crossing that line — passing into the white world — all that transgressive? Some forms of passing preserve the social order, others disrupt it. But don’t get me wrong: it’s probably always dangerous. Irene gets a taste of that danger shortly after arriving at the Drayton, when her childhood friend Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) enters the dining room. In the novella, Irene notes to herself that Clare’s clothes are “just right for the weather, thin and cool without being mussy, as summer things were so apt to be.” In that moment, Clare’s clothes — and Clare herself — fit. She looks white, and she is well dressed for the heat. Clare stares at Irene, and Irene fears that she has been found out. But this moment of danger passes (at least temporarily) when Irene finally recognizes Clare as her long-lost friend.
This early interaction between Irene and Clare teaches us something about these two sides of passing. Of course, Irene and Clare pass differently: for Irene, it is simply a moment, one required by the unkindness of the heat. For Clare, passing is life itself. From the moment she left her childhood home, to the moment she revealed herself to her childhood friend Irene, Clare had lived as white. As far as we know, she had never before told anyone that she was passing. But neither Irene’s temporary passing nor Clare’s permanent passing is particularly transgressive. Neither upsets the racialized ordering of social life so much as accedes to it through the careful manipulation of light and presumption.
What feels transgressive, however, is Clare’s passing back. Her disclosure to Irene that she is, in fact, passing as white, and that she passes even to her husband and children, is the beginning of a movement that brings Clare into Irene’s life in Harlem. If Clare simply wanted to remain safe, she wouldn’t have told Irene — but she longs for community, and, perhaps, for Irene. If she had simply passed into white society and stayed there, if she had cut her ties and accepted her losses, she might have remained safe. After all, such a form of passing preserves the existing order.
It is the weather that occasions Clare’s singular disclosure, nudging Irene to pass into the cool white enclosure of the Drayton and providing the opportunity for Clare to begin to pass back into the Black community. This is the beginning of something far more threatening: after all, Irene might now reveal Clare’s secret. Or Clare might be found out as she passes back and forth — she represents, as Cheng puts it, “the difference that flaunts, a flame […] that must be put out.” Yet, in trying to fit everywhere, she ends up fitting nowhere. Without a doubt, Clare is in danger from the moment of her disclosure, a danger that is realized, tragically, at the end of the story. She had perhaps always been in danger. But when she begins to pass back and forth, she has also endangered the racial order.
But before that tragic end, and after their friendship has been rekindled, Clare sits in Irene’s backyard sunbathing with Irene’s maid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins). It’s autumn, and leaves blanket the sidewalk in front of Irene’s Harlem brownstone. Irene arrives, surprised to find Clare and Zulena lounging outdoors. Zulena remarks that it’s “an Indian summer” — another instance of unseasonable, racialized warmth — before going inside. Irene takes her place, removing her jacket and using it to cover both herself and Clare, leaving their feet bare. Clare revels in the light, in the freedom that is offered to her by the temporary escape from whiteness and from the compulsory heterosexuality represented by her white husband (Alexander Skarsgård). The unexpected weather offers an occasion for transgression, an escape from the strictures of passing (because passing itself can be a kind of confinement).
There are many more scenes, in both novella and film, where weather features prominently: while drinking iced tea in Clare’s hotel room, during a terse argument between Irene and her husband, and even in the final, devastating scene of Clare’s death. Taking these scenes together, I suggest that Passing — in both of its incarnations, which is why the film, to my mind, stays true to its source material — operates through misfit: an attempt to fit that can’t help but eventually fail, or from another angle, an attempt to fit that succeeds in moments but inevitably passes away. The misfit, in a sense, is what passing is all about. We can take our cue from Irene’s thoughts, available to us through Larsen’s text:
Here the holidays were almost upon them, and the streets through which she had come were streaked with rills of muddy water and the sun shone so warmly that children had taken off their hats and scarfs. It was all as soft, as like April, as possible. The kind of weather for Easter. Certainly not for Christmas.
Here emerges a theory of weather which is also and necessarily a theory of racialized personhood: misfit weather makes for misfitting people, puzzle pieces that almost fit in multiple places and thereby threaten the integrity of the puzzle itself. Misfit weather heightens this potential for disorder, for dangerous transgressions, dangerous not just for the individual but for a racialized social order produced in relationship to the regularity of climate. Of course, transgression remains possible even when the weather refuses this regularity. But, like water molecules brought to boil, misfit weather makes the molecules of social life move faster, increasing the likelihood of heated, wayward collisions.
Bharat Jayram Venkat is an assistant professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society & Genetics, with a joint appointment in the Department of History. He is the author of At the Limits of Cure(Duke University Press, 2021).