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The Freedom to Pass

There was always an aura of mystery surrounding the “two white ladies” who lived down the block from us on the Near West Side of Chicago. First, our neighborhood, except for them, was all African American. Second, we could not figure out the advantages they were seeking by passing for Black in the 1960s. Third, we heard they lived on income from a trust fund established by a relative who was a cofounder of Sears, Roebuck and Company. In fact the daughter, who was tall and frail and looked to be about seventy, was called Miss Roebuck. Her mother, an older, definitely whiter-looking woman of about ninety, was called simply Adele. 

Miss Roebuck and Adele befriended my parents, and seemed to live quite happily in the neighborhood, calling upon us children to earn money by running errands for them. Sometimes it was a trip to the corner store; at other times it was being on the lookout for the mailman when they were expecting a special delivery. But the times that heightened my imagination were when I was called upon to help Miss Roebuck carry packages delivered by a driver in a limousine. A long black car would pull up to the curb in front of their house, and a formally dressed driver would alight. On one occasion I spied a person sitting in the back seat, face hidden from my view. I think it was a man and he stared silently at Miss Roebuck through the darkened, partially lowered window, but I don’t remember them exchanging any words. She stared back, a slight smile lifting the corners of her mouth. Then the window was rolled shut.

After the driver loaded our arms with boxes, we walked back to her house. For weeks afterward, she would offer us fancy candies or show us some trinkets from other parts of the world, or talk about places she either had visited or hoped to visit before she was too old. Who were these women? Where did they come from? Why were they living here? And who was the mysterious man in the back seat who was delivering all these goodies? 

These long-forgotten thoughts poured into my head when I signed on as an executive producer of the film Passing, an exquisite adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel that marks the assured directorial debut of acclaimed actress Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Christine). Larsen's novel, like the book, The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro and the film of the same name by James Ivory, deal with many interior thoughts of the characters. Hall successfully achieved the visual conveyance of these interiority of thoughts and emotions through the glances exchanged between the actors, their subtlety of movements, and the underlying music with its theme of estrangement. The film stars Tessa Thompson ("Sylvie's Love," "Creed," "Sorry to Bother You") and Ruth Negga ("Loving," "Ad Astra") as two African-American high school friends who reenter one another’s lives as adults, but who by then are living on opposite sides of the color line. Negga’s character, Clare Kendry, is passing as white and has a racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård), who has no idea of the secret she is hiding. Thompson’s character, Irene Redfield, chooses to live her Black identity and has a rich social and family life in Harlem that Clare is drawn to like a moth to a flame. Their performances are magnetic.

The issues of race and colorism in America have always been complex, and Larsen’s book was ripe for Hall’s delicate examination of them. Why was someone considered “Black” if they had only one drop of Black blood? There were even measurements of Blackness, for instance: An octoroon was someone who had an ancestry that was one-eighth Black. So that means that seven/eighths of their heritage was white. Why weren’t they considered white? Back then the answer was ugly; the “one-drop rule” was legislated to maintain the “integrity” of the white race. These laws and classifications were also fixed to make sure that land rights, titles, money, education and even something as basic as freedom were not inherited by the descendants of African slaves. 

To escape the peculiar institution of slavery or a lifetime of discrimination under Jim Crow laws, some African Americans chose to pass as white and live in a world where their very existence was not questioned. There they could become doctors and lawyers, businessmen and engineers, land owners and teachers, or have the opportunity to marry those so situated. Back in my youth, it was common to hear stories of people “passing.” This term was whispered in secrecy, in the same hushed tone that someone would announce cancer or some misfortune. It seems everyone either had a family member or knew of someone who decided to increase their chances of thriving financially by crossing the color line if their skin allowed it. 

There was the aunt who visited only at night after sneaking into the beauty salon to have her blond hair straightened with chemical relaxers. Or the cousins who lived in Detroit, and who loved each other, but lived on opposite sides of town based on the different ethnicity boxes they ticked on the census. 

Rumors abounded that one of the first and most popular millionaires in the Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) movement, W. Clement Stone, was Black. Whenever I saw him, or a photograph of him, I would eagerly search his face for clues, his trim little mustache hovering over his always present smile. But why didn’t you ever hear it spoken out loud? Or mentioned in the media? Was he passing? And how about the cofounder of Sears, Roebuck? Why did you hear all about Mr. Sears but not much about Mr. Roebuck? And if the founder of that big department store was Black, wouldn’t that be big news, especially back then, when the store was so popular that it could afford to deliver the huge catalogs of merchandise door-to-door? And even now? Was Mr. Roebuck passing? And why were his descendants living in my modest neighborhood?

Ironically, in the film "Passing," when Clare and Irene reunite, they both are passing. Irene only situationally, because it’s hot outside and she wants to enjoy iced tea on the rooftop of an upscale hotel that doesn’t welcome Negroes. Clare is passing permanently, to escape the poverty of her youth. She has married a rich man and tells Irene she has no qualms or guilt about living her privileged life. She has the freedom and privilege to go where she wants, to afford the luxuries of life she was denied when she was growing up, and to be accepted immediately when she walks into a room. But she has paid a price. Her husband gives her a nickname that’s a terrible pejorative. She lived in terror when giving birth, until she could see that the baby “wasn’t too dark”—and dared not chance another pregnancy. She misses the familiarity of old friends and the parties and the laughs and ways of the people she grew up with. And so she ventures out to Harlem to revel in Irene’s life, each time risking exposure of her identity. 

One of the other things Hall was able to demonstrate so beautifully in this faithful adaption is the mindset of the African Americans who could have passed for white but who steadfastly chose not to. They were so proud of their Blackness, even if not reflected in the color of their skin, that they chose, like the two Miss Roebucks, to live in a Black community. They were the ones who helped foster opportunities for others, helping to establish educational institutions and social clubs and churches where the Black community could thrive. Interestingly, in the 1960s, African Americans flipped the script on the one-drop rule and co-opted it as a measurement of the strength and pride of African ancestry. “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” 

Rebecca Hall, whose own British family sheltered a racially mixed heritage (her mother is American opera singer Maria Ewing whose father passed for white; her father is British theater producer, Peter Hall), sought to bring to the screen these many layers of this strange dilemma. Ms Hall said she needed to make this film in part because it was a way to reach back into her own family with "compassion, generosity and love toward those who formed their identities in a world that feared and despised them." During her 13 year journey in getting this film to the screen she discovered many things about the Black side of her family that were extraordinary, "things to be proud of." 

The artistic decisions she made, shooting the film in black and white with the cinematographer Eduard Grau and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, gave the film a dreamy sense that maximizes the period look and feel. I was fortunate to visit the set to watch her work and to see the exceptional chemistry between Thompson and Negga and André Holland as Irene’s husband. Hall’s passion for the project was evident in her every instruction on the set. And the actors all seemed appreciative of the opportunities to explore these boundaries of race—and class and gender and truth and deception. It is truly a beautiful movie.

"Passing" is written and directed by Rebecca Hall, adapted from the novel by Nella Larson. It is produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, Rebecca Hall, Margot Hand and Forest Whitaker, co-produced by Janet Tittiger and stars Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård and Bill Camp. The film's executive producers are Daniel Battsek, Michael Y. Chow, Lauren Dark, Chaz Ebert, David Gendron, Arcadiy Golubovich, Erika Hampson, Ali Jazayeri, Yvonne Huff Lee, Kevin M. Lin, Christopher C. Liu, Ollie Madden, Oren Moverman, Ruth Negga, Dori A. Rath, Joseph Restaino, Angela Robinson, Brenda Robinson and Tessa Thompson. The film's associate producers are Lori Abrams, Lisa D'Ambrosio, Marli Lee, Dominic Medina and David Tecson.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 22nd year.

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