Netflix’s Passing Director Rebecca Hall Addresses The Film’s Erotic Subtext

In Netflix’s Passing, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) are Black women living in New York during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1920s. Both can “pass” as white but choose to live on opposite sides of the color line. After years without seeing each other, the two reunite by a chance encounter and Irene soon finds her life totally upended by Clare. While both are married to men, the erotic subtext between these two main characters drives the story in many ways and director Rebecca Hall has elaborated on the inclusion of this.

Clare (played by Ruth Negga) has an electric personality that all around her seem to be drawn to. She turns heads simply by walking into a room, and Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) because enamored with her as well. When I spoke with Rebecca Hall, she shared the following of working with the actresses on the story’s subtext

In preliminary meetings with both Ruth and Tessa, I was a bit like, ‘Do you see this as, you know, are you getting anything [sexual]?’ and they both immediately were like, ‘Of course.’ … Yes, we spoke about it a lot. And I tried to shoot it not in an obvious way, because that wouldn’t be true to the book, and also I think it would be too heavy-handed in terms of what is being suggested. Because there can be attraction, even within female friendships. Not explicitly erotic, even platonic ones, but there’s this sort of ‘I see you like that.’ I think that happens between women. So I didn’t want it to be entirely about Irene’s repressed homosexuality, if indeed that is it, as much as it’s just in the ether.

Rebecca Hall accomplished her goal of not being too heavy-handed with the attraction between the characters in Passing. It is unmistakably present, but not the focus and not clearly spelled out or explained. Much of Passing is intentionally ambiguous, most pointedly the ending, but even the characters’ motives throughout the film are up to the audience to fill in. As the director mentioned, Tessa Thomson’s Irene could be expressing repressed homosexuality, but she could just as well be reacting to a dominant personality she’s never encountered before. Rebecca Hall expanded on this with the following:

All of it’s open for interpretation, but I think it’s more on Irene’s part than it is on Clare. Clare has a very easy relationship with her desires. She wants something, she will do what she needs to do to get it, and that means anything and she has no sense of the consequences. I think there’s an erotics in longing for all the things: to go back home, to be amongst the Black community, longing for how she perceives Irene of having everything right and it being sort of a paragon and it’s beautiful. And for Irene, I think it’s much more complicated because Clare’s easy relationship with her desires just busts open this [world of] ‘I don’t know who I am,’ And I think that she does have a kind of erotic longing for Clare, because Clare makes Irene feel like the sun is shining on her and everything is great, and when the sun stops shining she’s back in the dark. That’s Irene’s experience with Clare. She unlocks this whole sensuality that exists in Irene.

Whatever feelings are arising in the story, the fact that they’re not clearly defined is what makes them stronger on Irene’s part than Clare's. Between the two, Irene is much more reserved, and as Rebecca Hall said, Clare has a very easy relationship with her desires. Viewers can infer that if Clare wanted a romantic relationship with Irene, she would clearly express that, whereas Irene is unable to do so. Irene herself may also be unaware of her feelings and desires, which is why it’s not so specifically communicated to the audience. It makes for a very interesting film and one that will prompt much discussion. 

Passing is now playing in select theaters and arrives on Netflix Wednesday, November 10. There are a ton of amazing Netflix new releases this November for subscribers to enjoy.

Samantha LaBat

Obsessed with Hamilton and most things Disney. Gets too attached to TV show characters. Loves a good thriller, but will only tolerate so much blood.