Review: Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing

Passing stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in a thought provoking and ambiguous dance of “wild desire.” It’s about passing for something you’re not and the emotions that come from doing that dance. It’s now available on Netflix.

Passing comes from first time director Rebecca Hall, who wrote the script based on a novel by Nella Larsen. The novel was written during the Harlem Renaissance and the film uses stilted, old-fashioned dialog to maintain that sense of living in a bygone era. The film is in black and white, using a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, furthering that sense of the past.

Hall has said, “I came across the novel at a time when I was trying to reckon creatively with some of my personal family history, and the mystery surrounding my biracial grandfather on my American mother’s side. In part, making this film is an exploration of that history, to which I’ve never really had access.”

When Passing opens, we are with Irene (Thompson). It’s a hot day in Manhattan and Irene wears white gloves, a hat pulled low over her eyes, and nervously reapplied power on her skin. She’s in search of a particular gift for her son’s birthday and she can’t find it near her home in Harlem. She’s “passing” for the day so she can shop in an area where she’d normally be unwelcome.

Irene goes to a hotel for a cool drink to escape the heat. There she sees Clare (Negga), whose bleached hair and milky skin make her almost unrecognizable at first.

But Irene and Clare know each other from childhood. Clare approaches. They talk. They go to Clare’s room in the hotel. Irene, who is married to a Black doctor and has two sons, learns that Clare is married to a white man and has a daughter who also passes for white.

Clare’s husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) appears. He calls Clare “Nig” because she gets darker as time goes by. He admits he hates African Americans in a blatant statement. Irene is repulsed by John and attracted by Clare. She leaves. Later she tells her husband Brian (André Holland) she doesn’t want anything to do with Clare.

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing

Clare starts coming to Irene’s Harlem home uninvited. She misses everything about being who she really is. The people, the food, the laughter. She gets Brian’s attention and soon is attending parties and dances in Harlem with Irene and her husband. She hangs around Irene’s house at length.

Ruth Negga is wonderful in this, but it’s actually Tessa Thompson’s story. She regards Clare with repressed longing combined with fear, jealousy, and possibly anger. Irene tells her white writer friend Hugh (Bill Camp), “We’re all passing for something or other, aren’t we?” This statement could apply to almost anything from race or sexuality to modern day Instagram influencers. It sums up a theme of the film succinctly.

When the tragic end comes, we aren’t sure exactly what happened. Things are not expressed outright, we’re left to interpret events and emotions as best we can. This is the kind of film that forces you to do much of the work of understanding on your own, and leaves you pondering.

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