The Harlem Renaissance began in the 1910s and lasted through the mid-1930s. It was an age in which literature, music, stage performances and art—all created by Black artists—boomed out of the north Manhattan neighborhood.
But what was life like for the average, non-artist Harlem resident?
History tells us that the Harlem Renaissance gave hope to many African Americans who believed that white people’s fascination with their culture would lead to a greater acceptance of their community as a whole. And while not entirely wrong, those opinions were still a bit naïve. It’d take another 20 years at least before the Civil Rights Movement would begin, and many would say we’re still working on some significant racial problems today.
Which brings us to Passing.
Irene is a Black woman living in Harlem during the Renaissance. Because her husband, Brian, is a doctor, she lives a bit more bougie than her neighbors. Her boys go to a higher-class, integrated school. And she even has a maid, Zulena, who cooks, cleans and nannies for her.
But despite her insistence that she’s perfectly happy, it’s clear that Irene aches for more. She doesn’t just want to be a subject of entertainment for white people. She wants to be accepted by them.
Because of her light skin, Irene could actually pass for white. But if she truly masqueraded as a white woman, it would mean changing every aspect of how she lives now. She would miss her life. She would miss her husband and her sons (who are darker skinned, like their father). She would miss her neighborhood and her people. She would miss being Black.
So when she runs into Clare, an old friend from high school, she’s astounded to learn the other woman has completely abandoned her history and culture and is happily passing as white.
But perhaps Clare isn’t quite as happy as she’d like everyone to believe.
Her husband, John (a white man), is racist and completely ignorant of his wife’s deception. Blessedly, their daughter was born light-skinned, or who knows what John might have done. Clare puts on airs to make John believe she hates Black people as much as he does, but it causes her pain to do so since she longs to be around her people again.
The more time these two women spend together, the more they each yearn for the other’s life. But those are dangerous, lonely thoughts that could get them ostracized or even killed.
Despite Irene’s desires for an easier life, it’s clear she doesn’t want to leave the one she has. Her love for her husband, sons and people is evident.
When a man passes out from the heat, several strangers kindly aid him.
Clare says she was raised by her “religious” aunts. A woman credits God for a beautiful day. People say a man has a “godlike” opinion of himself. Someone says, “What the devil?”
Irene and Brian kiss and embrace sensually several times (once in bed). A couple exchanges kisses at a restaurant. Couples dance provocatively at a nightclub.
When a white man says his wife expressed interest in a Black man, Irene explains that it’s probably just the “exoticism” of something different and that she won’t leave her husband. Though later, Irene accuses her own husband of preferring Clare for the same reason. Someone asks Irene if she’s nervous about Brian’s “lady patients.” A man calls sex a “grand joke,” implying that he and his wife haven’t made love in a long time.
A woman stops her husband from rubbing her leg in public. A woman worries that her son will pick up on sexual jokes if he hangs around older boys. Someone says a woman is “easy on the eyes.” A woman asks her friend to fasten her dress after she changes.
Brian tells his sons about a lynching in Arkansas. The man was accused of assaulting two white women. People chased him down, hung him, shot him and then dragged his body through the streets.
During a conversation, it seems as though Clare is thinking about taking her own life, but Irene talks her down.
A man forces himself into a party, shoving people aside. He screams at his wife and makes a grab for her. She falls out of a window to her death. (Bystanders believe her husband pushed her, but we see that it was her friend who did it). We see the woman’s mangled corpse from a distance.
A woman says she would do anything, even hurt someone, to get what she wants.
There are two uses of the n-word. There are also several uses of “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused twice, once paired with “d–mit.” People also exclaim “Oh Lord!” and “Heavens!” A man chastises his wife for swearing.
John has nicknamed his wife “Nig,” short for the n-word, as a reference to the fact that her skin is getting darker each year.
People drink and smoke cigarettes. Clare often spikes hers and others’ drinks from a flask she carries around. We see a bottle of prescription drugs on a nightstand.
Racism is present in the subtle undertones of the entire film. A woman says she’s never met a “colored” person who didn’t work for her. People note that Black people can pass for white but not vice-versa. On the one day that Irene tries to pass as white, she’s careful not to make eye contact with anyone and wears her hat low over her face so nobody can look too closely. And it’s discussed that many white people come to Harlem for the thrill, not because they actually care about anyone who lives there.
However, we also experience true, outspoken, ugly racism. Irene’s son is called a racial slur by one of his classmates. John boldly says he doesn’t “dislike” Black people, he hates them. He uses racial slurs freely. He says that he’s never actually met a Black person but has heard stories that they rob and kill. And the nickname he’s chosen for his wife, while meant to be endearing somehow, is incredibly mocking.
It’s a mystery why a woman like Clare would marry someone who would likely murder her if he ever found out the truth. She tells Irene she’s thought about coming clean but worries what would happen to her daughter if John knew the truth. She pretends to hate Black people and refuses to even hire one as a maid because she fears that someone would realize she’s not white and tell on her.
To make matters worse, she subjects Irene to John’s racism as well when she introduces them. Irene handles the situation with grace and composure, but it’s clear she’s uncomfortable with John’s open hatred.
However, Clare’s lies have another effect on Irene. Irene agrees to not out Clare to her husband. And she agrees to not tell their community that Clare is pretending to be white either. But these duplicitous dealings cause her strife. She finds herself longing even more for Clare’s life—a life where her children won’t have to grow up in fear of, at best, being called foul names or, at worst, being lynched.
Brian fears for his children as well and even suggests moving to a country where Black people are more accepted, but Irene refuses. She is so convinced that America is going to change (and change fast) that she gets into an argument with Brian when he begins to educate their sons about racial hatred.
Brian tells his sons about a lynching. And when the boys ask why he was lynched, he implies that it wasn’t because the man was guilty of a crime but rather because of the color of his skin.
Clare has a habit of playing the victim. She likes to pretend that her life is so horrible since she’s never around her own people, but she also chose that life for herself. And she blames Irene for making her long to be around Black people again.
But Irene isn’t innocent either. The more Clare comes around, the more Irene wants her to go away. She accuses people of preferring Clare over her. And she harbors bitterness toward Clare for making her long for a different life.
People lie. Someone gags. A woman says being a mother is the cruelest yet most responsible thing in the world. Some children are rude to their mother. A woman rants about a teapot formerly owned by a Confederate soldier.
We hear about kids playing “Cowboys and Indians” (which is often considered now as an inappropriate game for children given the history of genocide against Native Americans).
Passing, in its way, is a parable demonstrating how the grass is always greener on the other side.
Clare longed to be white, so she pretended she was. And it worked. She married a white man, had a light-skinned child and carried on as though she had not a care in the world.
But she was naïve in thinking she’d be happy. She missed the history and culture of African Americans. She missed being Black. She was tired of lying, and she feared what might happen if the truth came out. She had escaped a life she thought she didn’t want only to be imprisoned in another.
She’s not the only one though. “We’re all of us passing for something or other,” Irene says.
Irene seems happy. She says she is. But really, she wants freedom too. She wants to embrace her Blackness without fear of retribution. She wants her children to grow up in a society that treats them as equals.
Neither woman can have exactly what she wants because neither woman wants to give up what she has. And the more they try to get what they want, the further it seems to slip from their grasp as they become more desperate and more reckless.
This film, while free of more gratuitous content, still carries a heavy message. It deals with racism, jealousy and hatred. We hear a few harsh racial slurs as well as some other profanities and sexual references. And sadly, there’s no redemptive message to help it pass for most viewers.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.