this story contains major spoilers for the netflix movie happening.
Rebecca Hall’s death ending is ambiguous and moody, perhaps even more so than Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name from which the film was adapted. passing leans into the gray areas, refusing to give the audience anything resembling a clear answer. but unquestionably, this film’s ending is about the lethality of obsession, the dangers of greed, and what happens when intimacy and kinship go awry.
Passing follows the relationship between clare (ruth negga) and irene (tessa thompson), childhood friends who meet again by chance in a hotel while both pretend to be white. irene is a proud black woman who lives in harlem and is married to a doctor (andré holland). her demise is a mere matter of convenience. when irene crosses the color line, she does not form bonds or friendships. She does it so she can buy toys for her two young children, who are dark-skinned and can’t fit in, or have a glass of lemonade in a fancy hotel on a sweltering day.
for irene, passing is something silly and insignificant. it’s almost like playing dress up; she places her hat strategically, hiding her black features from store employees and white shoppers. but clare’s death is something much more transgressive and intentional, an act of racial betrayal that irene initially finds repulsive and yet attractive. Neither Clare’s husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), who hates black people intensely, nor her daughter know the truth about her background. Clare, however, longs to return to the dark. So she clings to Irene and her family, with deadly consequences. After Irene suspects that her husband Brian and Clare are having an affair, and after Clare’s husband discovers that his wife is black, a violent confrontation ensues and the film ends with Clare falling out a window, her body broken. and lifeless in a bed of pure white, harlem snow.
The film (somehow) leaves it up to interpretation what exactly led up to clare’s death. we see irene’s hand brush clare’s stomach the instant before she falls. Did Irene push her because she wanted her husband’s potential lover out of her life? john also lunges at clare in anger before irene’s hand makes contact, and there’s a split second where we can’t see if john pushed his wife to her death, enraged at her cheating. And then there’s the grim, knowing look Irene gives Clare when they hear John enter the room screaming. Did the troubled clare decide to jump knowing that her life was already burned to the ground? In the book, the possibility of suicide is hinted at more strongly, with Larsen writing that when Clare fell, “there was even a faint smile on her full, red lips, and in her bright eyes.”
There are many different theories and as an audience we should not know which is the correct version of what happened. but by understanding the unique way that passing (both the book and the movie) handles the theme of longing, we understand the ending.
At first glance, Death may seem like just another story about a light-skinned person blending into white society, filled with the anguish of self-loathing and regret. but, in truth, this book is a very different kind of passing narrative, and nowhere is that more evident than in the examination of what each character covets, fights to protect, and desires.
Death stories often explore the theme of greed. In Imitation of Life (1959), fair-skinned Sarah Jane is passionately jealous of Suzie, the white daughter of a Hollywood actress who has hired Sarah Jane’s mother. sarah jane’s obsession with whiteness, her need to acquire it for herself, to cling to it, leaving everything that matters to her behind, is the central theme of the film. eventually, sarah jane is destroyed by her pride and her attempt to leave her blackness behind.
By the way, the “tragic mulatto” trope is tricky. it is blackness that each character covets or values above all else, not whiteness, transient or not. And it is the desire and pursuit of blackness, not whiteness, that ultimately leads to Clare’s death. in stories about death, the outsider in white society is usually punished because he tried to be white. By the way, Clare is punished because she wanted to return. but no one, not even her own people, longs for her.
“it’s my dream to go back, rene”, clare tells irene at the beginning of the film, invoking her friend’s childhood name. “I know,” she replies irene with a clear fear in her voice. Later, Irene’s husband, Brian, reads a letter from Clare to Irene aloud, in which Irene says that she feels a “wild desire” to return to her community after seeing Irene. brian seems haunted and disturbed by that phrase, “wild desire,” and tells his wife not to give in to clare’s desire to socialize. Irene’s rejection of Clare’s friendship hurts Clare deeply, leading Clare to go to Harlem unannounced to confront Irene. Irene responds by saying that it’s not safe, or “the right thing,” for Clare to come to Harlem to visit Irene and her family, citing John’s slimy attitude toward blacks and his liberal use of racial slurs.
irene’s reluctance to welcome back her old friend is a departure from most passing narratives, where black family and friends usually feel some kind of joy, even if that joy is conflicted, at the return of the person passing by. after all, these are stories of prodigal sons and daughters, and reunification is seen as the ultimate goal. But by the way, almost all the characters, including the white Hugh, who has rooted himself in the upper-middle-class black society of Harlem for fun, prefer Clare to stay on the side she has chosen. reunification is something that inspires dread. they clearly don’t want her there, because she represents some kind of intrinsic danger.
Much of the film’s plot revolves around Irene’s suspicion that Brian has cheated on her with Clare, but it is unclear if the transgression actually occurred. At times, Brian seems genuinely innocent. At other times, he and Clare seem too close. But in many ways, Irene’s suspicions stem from the fact that Brian has broken her original contract. she no longer fears clare’s return to the dark, and she no longer sees clare as a danger. This lack of cohesion between Irene and Brian fuels her suspicions, as she only feels more repulsion, and even more attraction, towards Clare.
by the time irene grows suspicious of her husband, her quiet fury has become intolerable. Clare’s death is foreshadowed many scenes earlier when, after seeing Brian and Clare sitting together, Irene drops a valuable teapot and breaks it to pieces. As Hugh tries to take the blame for her to spare Irene some embarrassment, she refuses, nearly choking back tears as she takes full credit for intentionally breaking the “ugly” pot that belonged to the Confederates.
“I had never figured out a way to get rid of it until now. inspiration! I just had to break it and I was free of it forever,” Ella Irene tells Hugh in a shaky voice. It’s clear that, in many ways, this is how Irene has always felt about Clare, and it only intensifies now that she suspects Clare wants his life.
clare has made it clear that she wants what irene has; Specifically, a black life, a life Clare gave up for money. “Why, to get the things I want so badly, he would do anything. hurt anyone. throw anything. I’m not safe,” Clare tells irene candidly, much to irene’s discomfort. just minutes before clare’s death, before john arrives at the party, irene asks clare what she would do if john found out she was black. irene replies “i would do what i want more than anything right now. she would come here to live. In Harlem with you.” Clare laughs happily at this, but Irene looks sick. Her fear that Clare will replace her and steal her husband and family from her is palpable right now.
after clare dies, irene is in shock and only comes downstairs with the rest of the group much later. When he sees Clare’s corpse lying on the ground, he lets out a primal moan as Brian hugs her wife and comforts her, whispering “I love you.” At this point, it becomes even more doubtful that Brian had an affair with Clare, since his only focus seems to be on his wife. And perhaps perversely, we as the audience feel a bit of Irene’s relief now that he’s rid of Clare for good. the intruder has been defeated, her family is safe, and her husband is back in her arms.
It’s worth wondering how director Rebecca Hall’s own identity (she’s a white woman, with a black grandfather who posed as white or Native American) might affect the decision to lessen the book’s focus on obsession. between the two women and instead fine-tune the jealousy irene feels. in the movie irene remains the most likely culprit for clare’s death rather than john or clare’s own will (a departure from the book which apparently attributes clare’s death to her white husband or suicide), and this sends a strong message about the extent to which transients fear not being accepted by the black community. Perhaps this ending reveals some of Hall’s own anxieties or her own projections? like the ending itself, that’s up for interpretation.
transient narratives often focus on the quest for whiteness, but this movie is different because its main event, especially if you think irene pushed clare on purpose, is caused by a burning need to protect blackness, the clare’s “wild desire” to return, and irene’s determination not to let clare’s possible yearning for her husband—or irene’s yearning for clare, since there is clear erotic tension between the two women—interrupt what she appreciates above all. Whether she was pushed by Irene or John, or fell herself, Clare’s fatal mistake (her “misadventured death,” as the police call it) is caused by her longing to cross the color line of white. to black.
Do you like what you see? how about some more r29 goodness, right here?
the passing trailer shows that the race is an illusion
ruth negga talks about growing up biracial in ireland
watch me transform into tessa thompson