“Why is your skin so light?”
“Shouldn’t you be black?”
“What are you … half white?”
As a first-generation American born to South African parents – a dark-skinned father and light-skinned mother – my olive complexion is a regular source of confusion. And I am not alone. Light skinned blacks and racially ambiguous people are often misunderstood and confused for different races. This is the act of pass, a new drama about two biracial women who “pass” as white to varying degrees that recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film, directed by English actress Rebecca Hall, is based on the acclaimed 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. It is followed by Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) and Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), two childhood friends who happened to find themselves in their adult lives connect. Both women play in New York in the 1920s and live on opposite sides of the color line: Clare, out of privileges, chooses to “fit” as white, while Irene proudly wears her black.
For the uninitiated, the act of “passing” is when a person who is mistakenly considered a member of a racial group is fully accepted as part of that racial group. Throughout history, many black women and men have chosen to be considered white in order to avoid persecution and, essentially, to be treated with dignity in a predominantly white society. In other words, blacks who could be considered whites sometimes did so in order to ensure a better life by breaking free from the severe restrictions that were wrongly placed on them.
Black people who could pass for whites sometimes did so in order to ensure a better life by breaking free from the severe restrictions that were wrongly placed on them.
And Clare has similar reasons for existence. While successfully posing as white, she finds safety in marrying John (Alexander Skarsgård), a wealthy and respected white man, and later giving birth to a fair-skinned daughter who also passes over as white. But when Clare reunited with Irene years later, she longed for what life was like on the other side (read: black). Fearful of being caught by her racist husband, Clare sneaks to clubs and parties in Harlem with Irene so she can fix her black girl.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white, which reduces the influence of skin tone on the screen. As a result, we are immediately reminded of what it means to dress across racial lines. “I was very strategic in choosing Clare and Irene’s wardrobes,” said costume designer Marci Rodgers. “I wanted to describe the difference between their worlds.” Unfortunately, years of discrimination have led blacks to carefully examine their clothes when entering another (often white) environment. Black men and boys can’t just wear hoodies or baggy jeans outside without attracting undue attention. Black women are objectified when their curves are exposed in figure-hugging clothing. We see Irene dressed comfortably at home, often in a wool skirt and mint green blouse, outdoors where she dresses up in textured coats, opulent sun hats, gloves, pearls, and high heels. When Irene gets dressed, she has to think about where she’s going, what time of the day, and about the people who might be there so that she isn’t seen as smaller. “While Irene could pass as white, [her wardrobe] She didn’t use it as a weakness, but as a means of survival, “added Rodgers.
In the real world, the discussion about presentability in relation to black women is as irritating as it is annoying. We are told that our hair is wild and unkempt; We are encouraged to work with neat locks to fit in, or to stick to a polished uniform in the presence of persons in authority to prove our credibility. It’s obvious that both Clare and Irene come from the same economic backgrounds, but Irene’s unwavering attention to her wardrobe and looks stems from her knowledge that black people are judged more by how we look than who we are.
The discussion about presentability in relation to black women is as irritating as it is annoying.
Ironically, the actual colors black and white have a meaning in this complicated story too. According to Brittanica, the color black means mystery and the unknown, as well as insecurity, weakness and lack of trust, while white symbolizes innocence, purity and cleanliness. I hardly think this is a coincidence – systemic racism is built into so many racial prejudices that still pervade society today. Since clothing often tells the story of a character, Irene’s discomfort with her white counterparts is reflected in their 1920s-style hats that often fall over their eyes. In contrast, Clare’s regal outfits exude confidence. Irene’s closet is more than just something to wear – it is an attempt to break down preconceived notions about black women. In many ways, their clothing is their armor. “When you wear certain things, it’s either directing or attracting a certain kind of attention,” Rodgers said. “At the end of the day, it was a survival tactic for Irene.”
On numerous occasions we see Clare and Irene going out at night, but the nuances of Irene’s prep routine may not be apparent to some. In America, where people of color are often judged harshly and quickly, appearance is of the utmost importance to the black community. Like many black women I know, Irene dresses not just to express her black pride, but also to have a sense of control in a world where she is becoming dehumanized and almost daily feeling invisible.
As hard as Clare tried, veiling her inheritance did not free her from his chains. In fact, it ended up killing them (spoiler alert). To me, Clare’s death was a symbol of the suffocation that comes with wearing the wrong mask. By contacting Irene, Clare was able to see everything she was missing – the community, the culture, everything. She finally felt liberated, happy and proud to be surrounded by her people so much that she wondered why she had turned her back on them in the first place.
pass is a poignant reminder to those of us who are different, that our differences make us special and unique. It is a great reminder to give up all preconceived labels and live your authentic truth. It reminded me to celebrate who I am: a fair skinned black woman who doesn’t have to fit into a stereotypical box of what it means to look black to be black. Translation: I can dress how I want.
Image Source: Edu Grau