The term “passing” refers to a light-skinned Black person manifesting their white skinned ancestry as their identity. Contrary to the institution of slavery, which profited from every individual who had at least one drop of blood from Black ancestors, those who “passed” defied white supremacists. Escaping from the horrors of bondage, they assumed a white identity fooling “massah’s” oppression. In her film Passing, adapted from Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen’s novel, Rebecca Hall explores passing as her film’s theme and central metaphor. Passing screens at the 2021 New York Film Festival, until October 9.
Hall brilliantly configures her screenplay, widening the concept of passing existentially and expressively. Indeed, she suggests the construct relates to the individual versus their own self-definition. Do they internalize repressive cultural folkways, uplifting material success and denying emotional well-being? Or do they strike out on their own path of identity in defiance of hollow, meaningless values?
Thoughtfully, Hall spins the story in black and white tones. Along with the profound and well thought-out cinematography, one discovers a phenomenal backdrop of musical accompaniment. The music represents the white and Black cultures and hints at the characters’ interior world. Oftentimes, Hall’s cinematography momentarily blankets the screen in all white or all black. Between such well-determined shots (the ending is a blizzard white-out), the characters’ actions fill in the greys. The images suggest opacity and ambiguity because most “pass” and live life in the grey.
All the characters are pawns in New York City’s white supremacist culture. Despite institutional discrimination and racism, middle and well-to-do classes developed in Harlem. Irene (Ruth Negga) and her prominent doctor husband Brian (André Holland) inhabit this culture, purchasing a lovely townhouse. Nevertheless, they, like the other well-heeled Blacks, pass. Unwittingly, they define their lives mirroring the elite white society which mugs at their superior status and wealth.
The situation cracks open for all the characters and conflict intensifies. Claire (Tessa Thompson) recognizes childhood friend Irene in a posh hotel dining room. Because Claire sought out a different lifestyle than Irene, competition between them subtly grows.
Claire, vibrant and bold, demonstrates courage, defying white supremacist culture by marrying a white businessman. Meanwhile, the sedate, well-mannered, elegant Irene achieves middle class satisfaction with her husband, darker-skinned Brian. As Irene, Claire, and her husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) talk, we note the audacity of Claire’s marriage. Defying the taboos of race relations, Claire duped John to believe in her white ancestry. John’s bigotry spills out to Irene and Claire as he jokes about Claire’s darkening skin color. Believing in his wife’s whiteness, he jokes about Ni$#ers, insulting Irene and Claire who remain quiet.
Curiously, John never suspects his wife. Nor does he associate Irene with her black identity at their introduction. As the story suggests, racist folkways promulgate crude, false stereotypes so whites can justify their predominance and oppression. Falling back on such stereotypes, John is blinded by Claire’s restrained, inauthentic manners and actions. Turning his own racism against him, Claire plays John for his money and status. Indeed, she gets over on “whitey” with her own form of mockery and ridicule. However, apparently, she loves John.
John believes the elegant, well-spoken, educated, light-skinned Irene has an all-white ancestry. For a short time, Irene passes successfully with John, but he appalls and disgusts her.
Though Irene attempts to break off any friendship with Claire because she fears reprisals, Claire pursues their relationship. Confronting Claire over her choice to pass, she rationalizes to Claire her own love of her black identity. Claire insists she’s happy and has “everything she wants.” But Claire is lonely. She misses not having Black friends, home cooking, Black society. Clearly, the two women envy each other. As a result Irene allows Claire to come to Black society parties and Brian and the children accept her. Indeed, Brian grows a bit too fond of her.
Understandably Claire pressures Irene psychologically with her courage, her sense of fun and her willingness to live her own life. Concerned, Irene wonders at Claire’s potential interest in Brian. However, Irene will not censure her except to state the danger in Claire’s befriending Black society.
Increasingly, Hall reveals all that hidden under personas trying to “pass.” Even the dominant racial class walls itself in. It follows strictures which nullify and destroy its members’ humanity unwittingly and unconsciously. Yet heroic Claire understands the risks she takes. Indeed, she knows what she has lost by attempting to pass as a white woman. Clearly, associating with the Black community and its riches gives her strength. Taking greater risks, she moves away from the white world which daily demeans her truth.
Though Irene and Brian judge Claire, they internalize perhaps the worst, most material aspects of institutionalized racism and white mores. As the conflict and tensions build toward the climax, events result in an inevitable catastrophe with no satisfying conclusion. Indeed, Hall and Larsen reveal that in a horrible world where people hide their real identity in order to “pass,” everyone loses.
For tickets and times to see the incredible Passing, visit the website.