Passing Ending Explained: Things Aren't Always What They Seem

For many marginalized communities, the act of racial passing stirs up uncomfortable questions. But for Rebecca Hall, it was the answer to a lingering family mystery. Hall, who you may recognize from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" or "Iron Man 3," is the daughter of the very-British Sir Peter Hall and the American opera singer Maria Ewing. While her father had the privilege of a well-documented family line, it was more complicated on her mother's side. The actress recalls asking her mother about her ethnicity, but Ewing never had a straight answer. "Sometimes she would intimate that maybe there was African American ancestry," Hall told the New York Times, "But she didn't really know; [the answer] wasn't available to her."

It wasn't until Hall first read "Passing," the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, that she finally began to understand why. The book follows the lives of two light-skinned Black women, both of whom have the ability to "pass" as white. While one carves out a respectable life for herself among the thriving Black community in Harlem, the other dyes her hair platinum blonde, crosses the color line, and never looks back. In discovering the novel, Hall learned that her grandfather also passed as white. She set about adapting the text as a way of processing her complicated feelings, and roughly a decade later, "Passing" became her directorial debut.

"Passing," much like the themes of Larsen's novel, is chock full of gray areas — not only because Hall shot on low-contrast black and white film, but also due to its wide-open interpretation. The film has become a cinematic Rorschach test of sorts. While some see purpose in every frame, others see a film where nothing happens — at least until the very end, in a calamitous sequence where everything comes to a shocking head.

What Happens in Passing?

We first meet Irene (Tessa Thompson) playing the part of an affluent white woman as she runs errands uptown. It's her first time really passing, and her discomfort is palpable, even as it grants her access to a segregated tea room on the roof of a swanky hotel. There, she runs into Clare (Ruth Negga) for the first time in years. It takes a moment to recognize her, and that's because Clare is also passing for white, just not in the timid, skittish way Irene is. Clare is living this way 24/7. She's embedded herself into the world of the white man, and she even married an especially racist one.

But it's not as if she's without regret: after meeting Irene that day, Clare expresses a "wild desire" to return to her community. And she immediately latches onto Irene's charmed Black life to do so, upending everyone else's in the process. Clare becomes a near-permanent fixture in Harlem — both in Irene's cozy brownstone, and at every party she attends. Soon, her family, friends, and even her housekeeper seem to prefer Clare's presence to hers.

The idea of being supplanted in her own home, and from the life that she took such care to build, starts to eat away at Irene. It's only exacerbated by the suspicion of an affair between her husband Brian (André Holland) and Clare. As if that's not enough, Irene also encounters Clare's husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) while out shopping in Manhattan. The first time they met Irene was passing for white. This time, she's walking arm-in-arm with a friend who cannot pass, and it does not take long for John to put two and two together: Irene is Black, and so is his wife...

Both of these worrisome developments come to a head on the exact same night, when Clare attends a party with Irene and Brian. Naturally, John crashes said party, bringing a violent altercation along with him. It ends as quickly as it starts, but when the dust finally settles, we realize that Clare has fallen out of a window, and landed six stories below.

How Did Clare Fall?

Was Clare pushed? Did she jump? It's difficult to know for sure, as the film (and the text it's adapted from) is limited to Irene's perspective. Larsen's novel adds a bit more context to the scene than Hall's interpretation, but the cause of Clare's death was similarly pored over for years after "Passing" was published. Larsen seems to imply that Clare jumped, mentioning "a faint smile on her full, red lips, and in her shining eyes" as she falls. Since she's failed to find true acceptance in either world she straddles, her reluctance to return to her old life — or worse, face her husband — could have influenced her decision.

On the other hand, either John or Irene could have caused Clare's fall directly. Both stood close to her before she fell; Clare even positioned herself between Irene and the window to avoid John's wrath. John does lunge for his wife, but Irene's hand grazing Clare's hip is also the last thing we see before the fall. Both John and Irene are stricken with shock afterwards, albeit in different ways. John immediately retreats to check on Clare, as does the rest of the party. But Irene is slow to react, descending from the apartment much later. By the time she joins her husband outside, police and paramedics have already arrived.

Irene's eventual reaction to Clare's body could read in countless ways. When she finally gets a good look at Clare, lifeless in the snow, she doubles over as if punched in the gut. It's a natural response, especially for someone she's known all her life. But is it a symptom of shock over Clare's death, guilt over causing it (however indirectly), or relief that her domestic worries are over?

"Everything I've Ever Wanted"

That in itself brings up the nature of Irene and Clare's relationship, which cannot be ignored either way you slice it. The tension between the two friends — whether it be caused by jealousy or clear, reciprocal longing — staunchly colors the film, and it starts the minute Clare crosses the color line from white back to Black.

Clare's appropriation of Irene's life represents something different for each woman. For Clare, it's an escape from a choice she regrets making and a way to sample the life she lost without inherent commitment. Being a wife and mother — or just being desired in general — comes so naturally to Clare that she takes it for granted. She hardly has to try; it's almost like a game to her. Meanwhile Irene, so calculated and controlled in the way she runs her household, has to work overtime to measure up to Clare's growing influence.

But Irene isn't doing it for the right reasons. She and Clare are oddly similar in that way. Neither are completely in love with their respective husbands, nor are they attached to their children, or their responsibilities as mothers. Clare flouts every standard expected from a woman of her era, but Irene clings to them even harder. She's fiercely protective of the life she's built, whether it suits her or not, because, like Clare, she too is passing — just for something else.

Clare isn't dangerous solely because she wants what Irene has, but because Irene wants her. Early in the film, Clare asks Irene whether she'd ever thought to pass full-time, and Irene answers with a brusque, "Why should I? I have everything I've ever wanted." But it becomes clear, the more they spend together, that isn't entirely true. She is simultaneously repulsed by and drawn to Clare, despite the betrayal she represents to her community. Her own "wild desire" has more potential to destroy her life than an affair between her husband and her childhood friend. So when Clare falls, it frees Irene in every possible sense.

A Gray Interpretation

Does that make Irene responsible for Clare's death? And even if she is, does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Even in the source material, Clare's death and its culprit are not meant to be known. Solving that mystery is not the purpose of "Passing." It's a distraction from the issue that intersectionality poses to such a rigid community. Like Hall told the LA Times, "Passing" is a commentary on the American Dream — and the conservative lie that hides behind progressive rhetoric. Anyone has the capacity to reinvent themselves, to find belonging in their chosen community... but not in multiple, at least not all at once.

Clare is unable to choose a side between her whiteness or her blackness. She tries to flit between two worlds, to place herself where she should belong (or used to belong) but no longer does, and she's punished for it. Irene has the opportunity to do the same when Clare comes back into her life, to pursue her attraction to her friend in an affair of her own, but she refuses. While Clare takes the fall for her transgressions, Irene is rewarded in a sense for adhering to societal standards.

In the end, we're left with a vicarious regret, and a relief that things have been restored to their "natural" order. The police label the whole affair a "death by misadventure," and nothing more is said. Nothing more needs to be said. Clare's ambition makes her an outsider. She attempts to align with multiple identities, and doing so makes her like a ghost to either party: ill-defined and hazy. Neither Black nor white, like Hall's film, but a gray area. People will see what they want to see in her, and in her unfortunate end.