There is always, upon encountering the protomorphic specters that haunt the work of the abstract expressionists, something disorienting. Particularly so in Franz Kline’s Untitled (c.1950-1959). The jolt of Kline’s paintings stems from some ancient, primal terror that kept us safe in the vast wilds roamed by the early hominids. That thing in us responsible for the split-second decisions of snake or snake-like root, shadow of a predator or shadow of a rock formation. The way, in such moments, all forms regress. The uncanny element of the painting is in its approximation to figuration. It’s not that you mistake it for human, but that you mistake it for something belonging to the domain of human comprehension.
"I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important,” Kline said in 1958. Gnomic brusqueness was characteristic of Kline, who painted with the sensitive outsider’s tender directness. His work feels particularly Jungian among the abstract expressionists, especially the late style for which he is most known today. Fluid strokes of black on white, seemingly at random but in the end carefully composed and constructed. In a composition, mark-making is often the foregrounded aspect, but just as important is the surrounding negative space. A mark creates a corresponding void, and it’s the interplay between white and black that gives Kline’s work, or any work, really, its dimension, depth, shadow, pace, rhythm. The spoken and the unspoken, the gesture and the pause, each has its role to play.
I thought of Kline’s work as I watched Rebecca Hall’s sometimes subtle but often obtuse adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing. Kline’s painting, Larsen’s novella, and (to a lesser extent) Hall’s film dwell in the Jungian underdark and the mysteries of human motivation. Kline and Larsen are attuned to the uncanny element of the everyday, constant activity of observation. How strange, they seem to say, that this thing we live by brings us so many peculiar objects to consider. In Kline and Larsen’s case, the peculiar objects are the inward and interior states of consciousness that Hall seems, except in rare cases, to be totally incapable of piercing. Her film is a voyeur’s film, capable only of capturing the activity of someone watching someone else perform without granting us any insight into what either party thinks or feels. Her film gamely captures the exterior activity of passing without telling us anything specific about any of the people involved.
Passing narratives in which a black person goes undetected in a scheme of racial deception is a particular form of American uncanny. Often, black people passed as a means of escaping one form of the horrors of American racism to inhabit a different, adjacent form of those very same horrors. It required one to leave one’s family, one’s home, one’s entire previous life, and to enter into a perpetual performance in order to escape detection. An erasure not only of a person but a whole history, creating these microdeletions in American genealogies. The trade-off was that you got to live as a white person. Or, you got to live and have people presume you were white while you lived with the constant fear of being found out.
Passing is the story of Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), who on a blistering hot day out shopping asks to be taken to a hotel. Our first encounter with her is as through the veil of her hat which she’s pulled down over her face. Her eyes dart about, her head flicking this way and that. Why is she so twitchy, I wondered. But then I realized, Oh, this is how they portray passing. She’s nervous about being found out so their way of telegraphing it is to have her perform her anxiety. It’s the first of a series of troubling decisions. The film, in its most clumsy moments, relies on such obvious overdirecting and over explication rather than letting the story take its time to reveal itself to us. But anyway, she’s trying to buy something for her son’s birthday but they don’t have the book, and upon leaving, she sees someone dead in the street. This too is foreshadowing of the film’s final scene.
In the hotel, Irene sits among white people. The restaurant is empty for the most part. It’s a stunning tableau. The film, shot in black and white, plays the shadows and lights with such dexterity that the cinematography becomes a character. There, Irene sits, framed by shadow and light from the windows. Looking at all of the people in that twitchy birdlike way of hers. And then her eyes pass across a blonde stranger sitting across the room. The woman stares at Irene, and she feels on the verge of being caught out. The woman approaches and Irene prepares to flee but is stopped when the woman says that she knows her. We find out that Irene and the stranger, Clare (Ruth Negga) are childhood friends from the South Side of Chicago.
In a key moment shortly after, they discuss their children in Clare’s hotel. Clare says that she won’t have more kids because she was too terrified while being pregnant the first time, thinking her daughter might have come out dark. “Mine are dark,” Irene says, stiffly. And Clare realizes that, oh, Irene isn’t passing. That they had encountered each other in this hotel after all of these years, and that they had made such different choices about how to use their pale skin. For Clare, it meant a certain kind of freedom. For Irene, it meant a choice to be black and to live as a black woman.
What follows is Clare trying to get herself ingratiated in Irene’s life. She misses being among her kind, she says. She misses black people, black life. Clare lives as a white woman with a terrible husband played by Alexander Skarsgaard. In one of the film’s best scenes, Clare’s husband recounts the story of his nickname “Nig” for Clare. “One day you’re going to become as dark as a Nigger.” The playful little scoop in his voice as he says it, the way Clare gazes at Irene as he recounts the story. Irene hiding behind the veil of her hat brim. Then Irene laughs. Because, well, she and the audience know that Clare is black. And her husband, who professes to hate black people, has no clue. It’s a moment of rare subtlety in this movie built on Important gestures.
Once Clare starts inviting herself around to Irene’s house and asking to go out with Irene and her doctor husband to their social engagements, things get murky, fast. We are to understand that Irene has complicated feelings about Clare. Sometimes Sapphic, sometimes anger, sometimes ambiguous beige jealousy. I think that in some way, the film is trying to tell us that Irene, who lives as black and passes only for convenience from time to time, feels for the most part content with that choice. That she chose to be black. And yet, coming back into contact with Clare, she feels a stirring of what could have been. She disgusted and also attracted to Clare. She then, I guess(?), begins to suspect Clare of seducing her husband. Or, I guess, she is jealous that her husband desires Clare? That Clare has gotten in with all of their friends and they all think she is beautiful and wonderful and this strange white creature coming to spread her Caucasian magic over all of them?
I say I guess because the film is very vague about the motivations of its characters. I think there are some artists who mistake vagueness for ambiguity. But in this context, we never get that moment when Irene’s actions reveal themselves to be complicated. She seems kind of like a cranky child for most of the movie. Her fights with her husband (André Holland, literally my husband, pls I love him so much) also seem…curiously nebulous. They aren’t fucking. And Irene seems to have a thing about being touched. She also has depression. And drifts in and out of some kind of opioid haze. That could be rich terrain to mine in a film about black female subjectivity and the curiously uncanny valley of racial passing. But it just kind of feels undeveloped.
Passing’s strongest character is Clare. Ruth Negga plays her with a spark of an interior life. She is messy, generous, brutal, sexy, and fun. She also has a deep, wounded sadness about her. There is something of a Zelda Fitzgerald in Clare. Negga has her finger on the quintessential tragedy of the character—that she can never really go back to the life she left behind. That she’s lived all this time thinking she was happy, only to encounter this familiar face far from home and realize everything she’s missed. I mean, fuck. Like, how devastating. And she tries to capture it back. You see in all her desperate attempts to have fun and dance at the parties with other black people in Harlem, a real desperate desire to have it be this way all the time. That as long as she’s laughing and throwing her head back on the dance floor, as along she’s in motion, she doesn’t have to be stuck in that beautiful, white cage her husband has built for her. Yet, the sad part is that even among her “own kind” she is performing.
Irene, I think, is meant to see Clare both as a figure to pity and also resent that people don’t see her choice as monstrous. It could have been complicated and interesting. But instead, it’s just kind of vague. And then there is also the fact of the unexplored class dimension to it all. Irene is a doctor’s wife and a society woman in Harlem. She hires a darker skinned housekeeper, who is one of the film’s underrated and underutilized characters. Clare is a rich banker’s wife, who won’t hire a black maid, presumably because she is afraid of being detected—black recognizes black. Yet, there is nothing really there in terms of the social context of the world these women inhabit. We don’t really get a sense of the social stakes.
Intuitively, we understand the existential stakes. Like, if Clare is discovered by her racist husband, she will definitely probably die. But that’s just kind of, there. You know? There’s no work to reveal that. We all kind of know that. But what about the social stakes. The particular social fallout from being discovered or detected. How do the black women in Irene’s neighborhood feel about her? What do they feel about her occasional passing? I mean, yes, the film is meant to be a claustrophobic story of Irene’s unraveling, but even the stakes of that feel curiously absent from the movie. It frustrates her husband, yes. It makes her kids not listen to her, yes. And, yeah, there’s a scene where she and her husband argue about whether their kids should learn about racism. But, apart from that, I mean. This movie could take place in, like, Detroit or Montgomery, Alabama, or on the Moon, and it’d kind of be the same.
To return to Larsen and Franz Kline, I think what makes their art feel so robust and so full of psychological intensity, is that you understand that the marks you’re seeing either in the painting or in the words on the page, are an outward extension of some interior state. The form of them, the uncanny recognition of oneself or a figure, is only possible because the mark making represents something interior. A feeling. A thought. A notion. A response. Something. But in this film, the characters have no real motivations. At least none we truly see. The characters have no insides. No interior states. And in such, it becomes a movie not even really about passing. It’s a movie about our contemporary hyper fixation on the exterior of racial theater.
It’s why the movie feels so clumsy and slow sometimes. It doesn’t bother with interiors. It’s just pretty clothes and pretty shadows caught on film. Hall’s movie lacks a Jungian underdark because it doesn’t really understand first and foremost that a person who chooses to pass is a person with their own needs and wants and fears and desires, and that those networks of motivation change. Instead, it focuses on the act. And it assumes something about the nature of the person who chooses such an act. It’s another piece of bland racial horror, deterministic and tedious.
In the end, when the characters are dealt their fates, I don’t know that I felt anything. I thought, well, yeah, of course. Hubris, our favorite hamartia and all that, whatever, who cares. But I think I was meant to feel something. I don’t know. It feels as though the movie relies on the context of our moment to imbue its racial imagery with meaning and resonance. That a black character dying senselessly makes us feel because black people in the world die senselessly. But in that, it just kind of feels cheap, no? I am not talking about the events of the story. They are what they are. But I am talking about what happens when you think something hits or has feeling to it just because it lines up with real life pain. I think as an artist you can delude yourself into thinking you’ve done your job just because what you’ve made makes you feel. But sometimes, particularly when it comes to “telling stories about your community,” there is a danger of losing sight of the story you’re telling.
My biggest complaint is that movie simply has no people in it, and so at the end, it’s not even a person lying there dead. It’s like someone toppled a mannequin. It’s a beautiful image. But it has no feeling in it. No meaning. To invoke Kline again, Hall painted the black. But she didn’t attend to the white.