Oscar-Snubbed Passing is a Prize-Worthy Speed Read

by Maya Moritz

Photo by Miti

Book adaptations have fared well in past awards shows, especially for underrepresented groups. Most recently, 2021’s Nomadland won for its dignified and stark portrait of van life (not to be confused with the Instagram variety) based on Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. The best picture nod has also gone to 2014’s 12 Years a Slave based on Solomon Northup’s memoir of his escape from slavery, while accolades have amassed for Slumdog Millionaire, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, and other books-cum-films whose prose translated into both box office bang and bronze statuettes.

So it was all the more disappointing when Passing, Rebecca Hall’s 2021 drama based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, received no nominations at all for last weekend’s Oscars. The movie boasts a stellar cast, a timely and riveting story, and careful period and mood considerations like the use of black and white cinematography to highlight one of the plot’s main flash points. The casting of Ruth Negga as charming, yearning Clare and Tessa Thompson as barely-holding-it-together perfect mother and wife Irene are astounding foils, their eyes and adornments stating every undertone and barb that their polite words cannot convey.

Disappointed watchers who didn’t get to see Passing duke it out with Oscar favorites Belfast and The Power of the Dog or surprise winner Coda can take comfort in one saving grace: you can always read the book. Weighing in at a mere 215 well-spaced pages, Larsen’s Passing is a two-day foray into the multi-layered world of race, class, gender, and expectations in 1920s Harlem.

In her hometown of Chicago, Clare meets childhood friend Irene in a hotel restaurant. Both are light-skinned black women who have traveled vastly different paths in the years since their adolescence. Clare has married entrepreneurial white racist Jack and “passes” as a Caucasian woman in order to maintain her life of Swiss boarding schools for her daughter, European travel, and opulent gowns while Irene married dark-skinned doctor Brian and lives in relative ease at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. The two women spar silently through unanswered letters and regretted invites as Clare slowly embeds herself into Irene’s world, slinking back into the culture she left behind.

The shattering of a teapot, a white vessel concealing dark fluid, announces the climax that ushers in both a reckoning and a mystery.

The shattering of a teapot, a white vessel concealing dark fluid, announces the climax that ushers in both a reckoning and a mystery. The soundtrack to the movie is a trumpet-heavy jazz wonder, but the novel could just as well have had the accompaniment of taut, persistent, accelerating pluckings on any deep stringed instrument. The tension builds until the reader can hardly handle it, reaching the conclusion just before tachycardia.

Whether you choose to watch the movie or read the book first, knowing the ending can be the ace up your sleeve rather than a suspense-killing disappointment. Like a detective, you can scour scenes for clues this time: who asked to open the window? Does a certain phrase indicate a longing to leave this world or a stubborn insistence to stay in it? My personal desire to have your first ending experience be fresh and unbiased prevents my discussion of these questions, but it’s well worth both watching and reading for a full picture of the ultimate did-she-or-didn’t-she debate.

In a recent meeting of the Stuttgart Deutsche-Amerikanisches Zentrum’s monthly book club, the issue of whether a crime in the plot was purposeful was hotly contested, but so was the idea of whether culpability even matters. Is it that the instigator of the final act is just a stand-in for the joint contribution of society’s expectation of women, of mothers, of people of color and minorities overall? Or is the guilty party of utmost importance, deciding for us whether Irene is a threatened mama bear protecting her world or a manipulative, vindictive puppet-master afraid to lose control? Alternatively, can we blame the victim in a way contemporary culture has become so loath to do and scorn a woman for throwing her people overboard in an attempt to live the good life?

What is so intoxicating in this short text is the way that so many issues pile atop one another, each feeling particularly relevant a century after the novella’s publication. So much of what is written seems at first glance to mainly concern the paranoid back-and-forth of a wife at the whim of her husband, her friend, and the universe. However, analysis after the fact unearths questions about the cycles of bias and resentment in families, the correct ratio of power-sharing within marriages, and the tricky considerations between progressive racial attitudes and traditional gender and class roles that persist among activists.

Cover art for Passing from Penguin

For readers unfamiliar with the great depth of racial issues that pervade America now and then, the novel serves as a humanistic look into the ways societal conflict turn sister against sister and a group against its own. Even for those (like me) whose school reading of race issues went only so far as To Kill A Mockingbird, this more nuanced lens into a complicated social and political structure emphasizes the care we need to take when placing blame in such situations. Even with a clear villain in the form of Clare’s prejudiced, unredeemable husband Jack, we see flaws in Irene’s sarcastic and condescending husband Brian, Irene’s holier-than-thou and elitist friends, and especially in Irene’s anti-female-empowerment stance toward her possibly sincere old friend, so clearly in need of kindness.

Passing is also a perfect opportunity to brush up on the tumultuous history of interracial relationships. Far from the devoted and heart-wrenching story described in 2015’s Loving, a portrait of the couple at the center of the fight against anti-miscegenation (interracial marriage) laws and also a masterful performance by Ruth Negga, Passing pushes more towards the incredible story of Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and even mentions the case explicitly.

In the 1925 Rhinelander v. Rhinelander divorce case, socialite Kip Rhinelander attempted to annul his marriage to working-class biracial woman Alice Jones after his family discovered his elopement and threatened to disown him. Kip quickly abandoned his bride at the thought of living the commoner lifestyle and allowed his legal team to cook up the idea of annulling the marriage on the grounds that light-skinned Alice misled Kip about her background so that he would marry her.

Alice Beatrice Jones and Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander of Rhinelander v. Rhinelander (1924), taken from Mixed Race Studies

Cue a circus of photographers, newspapers, and questionable evidence. Love letters were read aloud for references to the color of Alice’s body and Alice had to undress at the shoulders and calves to show the judge and jury what her husband might have seen. Ultimately, Alice was awarded a handsome settlement and yearly payments with the agreement that she would not defame the family by discussing them or the case. Kip died at 32 as a woodcutter and, after his father’s death, the heirs of the Rhinelander fortune sought to cease payments representing an infinitesimally small portion of the inheritance. Alice sued and was again victorious, later dying a well-off and old woman.

Astoundingly, the dramatic case with a rarely-seen happy ending has received less attention in the arts than one would expect of such an epic tale of David against racist, classist, penny-pinching Goliath. The case inspired Larson as well as three additional films, the earliest of which are now lost.

Those in the mood for a deep, quick read that stays with you long after the last page should give Passing a go, then see the beautiful film for the pleasure of re-immersing yourself in such a fully-realized and culturally compelling world. Producers in the readership should look to the Rhinelander case for what promises to be a sure nail-biter with a better chance of winning truly-deserved Oscars than the ill-fated yet unimaginably-worthy Passing.