Passing tells the story of two Black women in 1920s New York, former high school friends who meet again unexpectedly after many years. While Irene (Tessa Thompson) has lived her life in Harlem, wearing her identity proudly, Clare (Ruth Negga) has spent her entire adult life passing as a white woman.
A usually vivacious Thompson plays her subdued role opposite Negga, and like Brit Bennet’s recent novel The Vanishing Half, it brings together themes of race and ‘passing’ for someone you’re not. A quiet but slowly thoughtful film, this is one to catch on Netflix on its release very soon.
Director: Rebecca Hall
Release date: October 10, 2021 (LFF)
Irene (Thompson) and Clare (Negga) are both well-to-do women living in the city. Their unexpected encounter in a restaurant in the fashionable side of town one day changes the course of their otherwise settled lives. Though Irene is uncomfortable about being in a predominantly white neighbourhood, Clare seems perfectly at ease. Clare recognises her classmate right away and strikes up a fascinating conversation.
In the transpiring events in which they end up at her apartment (she’s recently moved from Chicago), it becomes clear that Clare has passed as a white woman for her entire adult life, while Irene has continued living out her identity as a Black woman in Harlem, married to a Black man and now with two sons. This dramatic encounter and revelation is underplayed, which seems to make it all the more striking, and (I suspect like many viewers), Irene is unsure how to react.
An influential white man, Clare’s husband is deeply racist, though Clare seems not to take any notice. Despite Irene’s efforts to distance herself from her unusually clingy friend, Clare keeps appearing in her life, writing letters and even resorting to showing up at Irene’s house and ingratiating herself into her home. Becoming interested in Irene’s husband, Brian (Andre Holland), and their two sons, Clare is an increasingly toxic and stifling presence, though she seems unaware of the havoc she is creating.
Though patient at first, Irene becomes growingly disturbed by Clare’s presence, and many things are hinted at through innuendo, encouraging viewers to read into the situation to try to see who has the upper hand. While Irene and Brian are well-connected — they run a benefit gala for the Harlem community and enjoy the company of educated and welcoming white folks, such as the writer Hugh (Bill Camp) and his wife — Clare’s presence disturbs the delicate balance of their household. “Perhaps she enjoys the attention,” remarks Hugh one evening. Irene is unimpressed.
Many of this year’s Oscar hopefuls have been released in 4:3 and in monochrome: Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast included, last year’s Malcolm and Marie, and half a dozen others. For a film such as Passing, the format literally ties into the themes of race and equality and makes it visually striking. Having the entire film desaturated of colour in each frame puts its players on more equal terms.
It was interesting to see how the two leads, women of colour, acted their roles and how the filter seemed to enhance the experience of feeling that their identities were ambiguous. I do wonder whether there was a full-colour version (many recent features, such as Parasite, played with the idea of showing its story in monochrome and colour by having two separate releases), but in Passing the current theme works well. It also gives the film a more antiquated aesthetic and makes it a lot easier to visualise the story as a narrative set in the 1920s.
That being said, what I found most challenging about this film was the concept that someone could ‘pass’ for another race throughout their entire adult life. Would Clare’s husband not recognise that she was different from him? Wouldn’t their daughter show signs of her ethnicity? The questions are brought up self-consciously by Irene and her husband, but I couldn’t really see the possibility. This fundamental problem meant that I couldn’t surrender to the story as much as I’d have liked.
I didn’t love Passing, because I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief, but that’s not to say I didn’t think the themes were important or that I didn’t enjoy the aesthetic. It felt very much like a film that could accumulate a modest fan following its secure Netflix distribution. Though critical acclaim is one thing, the real reception of viewers on streaming platforms will tell whether this film shines or misses the mark.