Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga shine in Rebecca Hall’s Passing.
This review of the Netflix film Passing (2021) does not contain spoilers.
The practice of racially Passing through society to assimilate into the white majority is not a hobby to pass the time or a taste of the good life. It’s a way to survive—a way to get out of racial segregation and socioeconomic oppression. For a time, anyway. That’s what Reenie (Tessa Thompson) discovers as she is allowed to shop freely in white neighborhoods and have tea at expensive restaurants in New York City. While Reenie finds she can pass freely into wealthy worlds, she identifies as black, lives in Harlem, and is married to a black doctor.
While sipping her drink, she scans the room, her hat almost covering her eyes, worried she will be outed as a black woman in a society whiter than the linen at her table. Her eyes meet another white woman who has an intent look of amusement while looking at her. She approaches Reenie as if they are old friends. Her name is Clare (a phenomenal Ruth Negga), and now she places her. She went to school with Reenie. They are both mixed-race, looking to some as European. Clare is passing as white. She is now married to a wealthy white man named John (Alexander Skarsgård), who doesn’t know. His jokes seem to consist of teasing his wife of turning init into a racial expletive.
The film begins to expose insecurities that plague Reenie while Clare has found a way to hide her fears as a prominent member of the white majority. Clare has, in a sense, migrated away from her people and culture. This is a way to reconnect as she continually drops in on her childhood friend and her annoyed husband Brian (Andre Holland), who is in serious need of a sleep study. Reenie appears to be fascinated with Clare. She is living a double life but can easily fit back into enjoying those Harlem nights.
Their lives become intertwined. Brian wants to leave the dreadful New York area. She is uptight, bossy, and avoids having a sexual relationship with her husband. Clare comes off as a free spirit that Brian needs more of to balance out his life. Both women are products of the unintended consequences of 1920s intersectionality. Being a woman and a minority intersects as different levels of racism overlap. This allows Clare to bypass that but also has her living in constant fear.
Netflix’s Passing was directed by Rebecca Hall, who adapted the script from Nella Larsen’s acclaimed novel of the same name. The film, like the book, works on different levels. Lies that may appear ambiguous viewed from either angle take on subtle shades of meaning. Take the scene with Clare dancing at a party in Harlem with her husband and friend Hugh (Bill Camp). A subplot calls into question not only Clare passing but Reenie letting her guard down on her sexuality and allowing Reenie to pass as a heterosexual woman in a while that doesn’t approve of homosexuality.
She is now so afraid of exposure. She offers her husband up to Clare to dance, which turns her fears of her husband leaving her as not about marriage. But what if it’s about her “beard’ going her and exposing what she is trying to hide from the world. Even from her people?
Passing is beautifully photographed. The black and white highlights and even accentuates the issues that always find themselves in the grayest areas. Exploring those areas should be given credit to the lead performances. Ruth Negga’s Clare is more complex than on the surface. The way she lets her guard down around Ireen and her family and friends. How she is more stoic around her husband while ever so subtly showing the hurt that her husband’s comments cause.
Tessa Thompson’s role is less flashy but embodies the mental health crisis of the at-risk/marginalized. The film isn’t about Clare as it is about Reenie’s character. A study or portrait of the effects of intersectionality during a time of significant oppression and resiliency.
Passing leads to a moment that is strangely cathartic as it leads to a moment we all know is the film’s point. It soon follows with a shocking moment that even the Greeks would say is too tragic. What happens is subjective and open to interpretation, which I won’t spoil. It’s those moments where Rebecca Hall’s adaptation excels as it causes the intended consequence of debating cause and effect.
There’s no easy answer, and that’s where Passing excels— the gray areas.
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