The Devastating — And Divisive — Ending Of Passing, Explained

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
This story contains major spoilers for the Netflix film Passing. 
The ending of Rebecca Hall’s Passing is ambiguous and shifting, perhaps even more so than Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name that the film is adapted from. Passing leans into the gray areas, refusing to give the audience anything resembling a clear answer. But indisputably, the ending of this movie is about the deadliness of obsession, the dangers of covetousness, and what happens when intimacy and kinship go wrong. 
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Passing follows the relationship between Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson), childhood friends who are reunited by chance in a hotel while they are both passing for white. Irene is a proud Black woman living in Harlem and married to a doctor (André Holland). Her passing is a mere matter of convenience. When Irene crosses the color line, she forms no attachments or even acquaintanceships. She does it so she can buy toys for her two young sons — who are dark-skinned and cannot pass — or grab a glass of lemonade at a swanky hotel on a sweltering day. 
To Irene, passing is just some silly, insignificant thing. It is almost like playing dress-up; she positions her hat strategically, hiding her Black features from the white store clerks and shoppers.  But Clare’s passing is something much more transgressive and intentional, an act of racial betrayal that Irene initially finds repulsive, and yet alluring. Neither Clare’s husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) — who hates Black people intensely — or her daughter know the truth about her background. Clare, however, longs to return to Blackness. Because of this, she latches onto Irene and her family, with deadly consequences. After Irene suspects that her husband Brian and Clare are having an affair, and after Clare’s husband discovers that his wife is Black, a violent confrontation ensues, and the film ends with Clare falling out of a window, her body broken and lifeless on a bed of pure white, Harlem snow. 
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By understanding the unique way Passing — both the book and the movie — handles the theme of longing, we understand the ending. 

The movie (somewhat) leaves what exactly led to Clare’s death up to interpretation. We see Irene’s hand graze Clare’s stomach the instant before the fall. Did Irene push her because she wanted her husband’s possible mistress out of their lives? John also lunges at Clare angrily before Irene’s hand makes contact, and there is a split second where we can’t see whether John pushed his wife to her death, enraged by her deception. And then, there is the mournful and knowing look Irene gives to Clare as they hear John enter the room screaming. Did the troubled Clare decide to jump then knowing that her life was already burned to the ground? In the book, the possibility of suicide is more strongly hinted at, with Larsen writing that as Clare fell, “There was even a faint smile on her full, red lips, and in her shining eyes.” 
There are many different theories, and as the audience, we’re not meant to know which one is the correct version of what happened. But by understanding the unique way Passing — both the book and the movie — handles the theme of longing, we understand the ending. 
At first glance, Passing might seem like just another story about a light-skinned person blending into white society, filled with the angst of self-loathing and regret. But in truth, this book is a very different kind of passing narrative, and nowhere is that more apparent than examining what each character covets, fights to protect, and desires. 
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Stories about passing typically explore the theme of covetousness. In  Imitation of Life (1959), the light-skinned Sarah Jane is passionately jealous of Suzie, the white daughter of a Hollywood actress who has employed Sarah Jane’s mother. Sarah Jane’s obsession with whiteness, her need to acquire it for herself, to hold fast onto it, leaving behind everything that matters to her, is the core theme of the film. Eventually, Sarah Jane is destroyed by her pride and by her attempt to leave her Blackness behind. 
In Passing, the “tragic mulatto” trope is complicated. It is Blackness that each character covets or prizes above all, not whiteness, whether they are passing or not. And it is the desire and pursuit of Blackness — not of whiteness — that ultimately leads to Clare’s death. In stories about passing, the interloper into white society is usually punished because they tried to be white. In Passing, Clare is punished because she longed to return. But no one, not even her own people, long for her. 
“It’s my dream to come back, Rene,” Clare tells Irene at the beginning of the movie, invoking her childhood name for her friend. “I know,” Irene responds with a clear dread in her voice. Later, Irene’s husband Brian reads aloud a letter from Clare to Irene, where Irene says she feels a “wild desire” to return to her community after seeing Irene. Brian seems fixated and perturbed by that phrase, “wild desire,” and tells his wife not to relent to Clare’s wish to socialize. Irene’s rejection of Clare’s friendship wounds Clare deeply, leading to Clare coming to Harlem unannounced to confront Irene. Irene responds by saying that it isn’t safe, or “the right thing” for Clare to come to Harlem to visit Irene and her family, citing John’s viscous attitude towards Black people and his liberal use of racial slurs. 
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Irene’s reluctance to welcome her old friend back is a deviation from most passing narratives, where the Black family and friends usually feel some kind of joy — even if that joy is conflicted — at the passing person’s return. These are stories of the prodigal sons and daughters after all, and reunification is seen as the ultimate goal. But in Passing, almost all the characters — even the white Hugh, who has ingrained himself into Black upper middle-class Harlem society for fun — prefer Clare to remain on the side she has chosen. Reunification is something that inspires dread. It’s clear that they don’t want her there, because she poses some kind of intrinsic danger. 

In stories about passing, the interloper into white society is usually punished because they tried to be white. In Passing, Clare is punished because she longed to return. But no one, not even her own people, long for her. 

Much of the movie’s plot hinges on Irene’s suspicion that Brian has cheated on her with Clare, but it’s not clear whether the transgression actually occurred. At times, Brian seems genuinely innocent. At other times, he and Clare seem much too intimate. But in many ways, Irene’s suspicions come from the fact that Brian has broken their original contract. He no longer dreads Clare’s return to Blackness, and no longer sees Clare as a danger. This lack of cohesion between Irene and Brian fuels her suspicions, as she has only grown more repulsed — and yet still more drawn — towards Clare. 
By the time Irene has come to suspect her husband, her quiet rage has grown intolerable. Clare’s death is foreshadowed many scenes prior when, after seeing Brian and Clare sitting close together, Irene drops a valuable teapot, breaking it into pieces. As Hugh tries to take the blame for it to save Irene a bit of embarrassment, she refuses, nearly choking on tears as she takes full credit for intentionally breaking the  “ugly” pot that belonged to Confederates. 
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“I had never figured out a way of getting rid of it until just this minute. Inspiration! I had only to break it and I was free of it forever,” Irene tells Hugh shakily. It’s clear that in many ways, this is how Irene has always felt about Clare, and it’s even more intensified now that she suspects Clare of wanting her life. 
Clare has made it clear that she desires what Irene has; specifically, a Black life, a life which Clare abandoned for money. “Why, to get the things I want so badly, I’d do anything. Hurt anyone. Throw anything away. I’m not safe,” Clare tells Irene frankly, much to Irene’s discomfort. Mere minutes before Clare’s death, before John arrives at the party, Irene asks Clare what she would do if John ever found out she was Black. Irene responds “I’d do what I want more than anything right now. I’d come up here to live. In Harlem. With you.” Clare laughs joyfully at this, but Irene looks ill. Her fear of Clare replacing her and stealing her husband and family, is palpable at this moment. 
After Clare dies, Irene is in shock, only coming down the stairs with the rest of the party much later. When she sees Clare’s dead body laying on the ground, she lets out a primordial moan, while Brian holds his wife and comforts her, whispering “I love you.” In this moment, it becomes even more doubtful that Brian had an affair with Clare, as his sole focus seems to be on his wife. And perhaps perversely, we as the audience feel a bit of the relief that Irene feels now that she is rid of Clare forever. The interloper has been vanquished, her family is safe, and her husband is in her arms again. 
It’s worth wondering how director Rebecca Hall’s own identity  — she is a white woman, with a Black grandfather who passed for white or Native American — might affect the decision to lessen the book’s focus on the erotic obsession between the two women and instead hone in on the jealousy that Irene feels. In the movie, Irene is still the most likely culprit of Clare’s death instead of John or Clare’s own volition (a departure from the book which seemingly pins Clare’s death on her white husband or suicide), and this sends a strong message about the extent to which white-passing people fear not being accepted by the Black community. Does this ending perhaps reveal some of Hall’s own anxieties or her own projections? Like the ending itself, that is up for interpretation. 
Passing narratives so often focus on the pursuit of whiteness, but this movie is different because its main event — especially if you believe Irene pushed Clare purposefully — is caused by a fervent need to protect Blackness, Clare’s “wild desire” to return, and Irene’s determination to not let her husband’s possible longing for Clare — or Irene’s longing for Clare, as there is a clear erotic tension between the two women — disrupt what she holds dear above all else. Whether Irene or John pushed her, or whether she fell herself, Clare’s fatal mistake (her “death by misadventure” as the police call it) is caused by her longing to cross the color line from white back to Black.

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