Depending on your personal family history, a story like the one told in the 2021 film Passing will not be revelatory. In fact, there are more than a few broken branches in my own family tree telling a similarly themed story.
Passing is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall and based on the 1929 Nella Larsen novel of the same name. Hall also adapted the screenplay. Passing premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
It tells the story of Clare Redfield (Ruth Negga) and Irene Bellew (Tessa Thompson), former schoolmates who meet by chance on a sweltering day in New York City. They proceed to quickly rekindle their friendship. Years apart and lives that are on very divergent paths test the bounds of their friendship. Both women spiral in a way, engaging in behaviors which may very well lead to tragic consequences.
To proclaim that Clare and Irene are two sides of the same coin, oversimplifies the complexities of their relationship to each other and the world around them. Clare’s journey and reawakened desire to connect with her past is tangled in the fact that she is married to a straight up racist (Alexander Skarsgard). Side note: Alexander Skarsgard has an incredible knack for playing gross characters quite well – just saying.
One Friendship, Two Journeys
The reunion with Irene seems to awaken Clare’s curiosity with her reconnecting her African American roots. Unfortunately, it is in a way that is hard to decipher in action and intent. In her words and actions it is clear she misses being her true, authentic self. However, she is doing under the perceived guise of her passing persona. In other words, it’s ‘complicated.’ At least that is how I see it …
Irene’s journey is equally layered. Although she has decided not to pass, she is seen at the opening of the film taking advantage of her physical appearance and passing. Of course, this is the moment she ironically runs into her old school friend. Her discomfort at discussing racial issues with her husband Brian (André Holland) and children is quite pronounced as is her treatment of her maid Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins). While a member of the African American middle class having Black “help” is not uncommon, it does speak to a classism and colorism Irene seems fully willing to accept as part of her station in life.
One scene in particular shows this conflict. On one of Clare’s visits to her Harlem brownstone, Irene finds Clare in the backyard with Zulena. “Zu” goes back in the house, leaving Irene and Clare alone. There is a moment where Irene covers up Clare’s legs as a means of protecting her from browning in the sun. I interpret this a couple of ways. On one hand, this is Irene protecting Clare from herself and any discovery of her true background to her husband. But also, and perhaps a little sadder, is the fact that Irene, while identifying as African American, seems to have issues with that blackness.
Artistic Impressions in Passing
You don’t get there unless the lead actors are delivering solid, believable performances. Negga and Thompson’s performances are noteworthy. They feel like a time capsule and recall performances of early Hollywood talkies (late 1920s – early 1930s).
Hall’s artistic choices such as shooting in black and white and using a 4:3 aspect ratio add a sense of atmosphere. My visceral response to the square screen was tension and claustrophobia. As I watched the film play out, I felt a foreboding dread, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know the cliff’s edge is approaching. You just do not know exactly what you will find when you get there.
One might have some reservations with Passing playing out the narrative trope of the “tragic mulatta“. For me, I went into the film with some foreknowledge. It hardly came as a surprise, given the age of the source material. In fact, I am not sure how a filmmaker can avoid telling the story authentically without including these elements of both Irene and Clare’s journeys.
Although I haven’t read the official press notes, I did take a look at the New York Times Magazine feature about Rebecca Hall. In reading this piece as a companion to her film, Passing truly feels like quite a personal project for her. In doing so, the film is a statement on searching for a deeper understanding of identity and what it means.
Passing is streaming now on Netflix.