‘Passing’: takes a painfully exquisite look at the fitting in of skin color

We’ve all done it at one point or more in our lives. In minor or severe forms, passing as someone who we aren’t just to belong. The phenomenon begins in our childhoods, goaded by well-meaning parents to fit into an existing ecosystem of beliefs, culture, and even economic bar charts. We do it as grown-ups, passing as high-brow observers at parties where high falutin conversations are de rigueur, and mouthing abstract wisdom is the only way to belong to that inescapable and inevitable group. We do it when we change our accents to match the more prominent groups; we do it when we fit in couture opposite to our personas and likes. We do it by hiding our authentic selves and donning a shell that is as heavy as Tony Stark’s. Some might call this mirroring, which seems like a convenient term to explain all the insecurities and desperation that drive such behavior. But in its most intense form, passing calls for a racial, physical, or sexual pivot antithetical to what is at our core. 

In their movie debut, Passing, writer-director Rebecca Hall captures the slithering trauma that bumps and slides across the boundaries of skin-color divisiveness that spring up between Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) as they spot each other in an airy upmarket restaurant in 1920s NYC. Irene’s from Harlem and ‘passing’ for the day, exploiting her light-colored skin and prowess of wearing hats to hide her African features, as she goes about shopping in establishments she wouldn’t have had a chance to enter otherwise. For her, the deception is temporary, a reversal of chameleonic camouflage to selectively display herself rather than hide amongst the white. 

Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson: next of (s)kin.

In the bleached blonde who is Clare and who she doesn’t recognize at first, is Irene’s own avatar of a full-blown passer. Clare’s left her Harlem days and ways behind and is married to John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgård, reveling in charientism), a wealthy white man from Chicago who has no clue his wife isn’t who she is. As the women meet in a tense conversation that has the past rumbling uneasily below the radar, director Hall creates sparks of intrigue and eroticism between them, a tug-of-war of what they meant to each other, what transpired between them, and what didn’t. There’s nothing explicitly said, and we’re not the only ones whose antennae are stimulated. Irene’s husband, Brian Redfield (André Holland), a successful black doctor, is disdainful of Clare at first, a letter she writes to Irene causing him to scoff, as it speaks of “wild desires” that were roused post their meeting. There’s a lot hanging in the air, and you could cut it with a knife, only you don’t quite know what ‘it’ is and where the blades are kept. 

As their paths criss-cross—more at Clare’s behest—the drama rises, bile-like, in Irene’s resentment, as she realizes Clare wants her old life back, and Brian and her children are the backdoor entry to the community. Is Irene’s overpowering anger at Brian’s volte-face about Clare, as the two seem to get more and more intimate? Is it because Irene’s exclusive and exquisite life is now darkened by the color of a pale poison? Or is it because we all detest anyone who tries to buy the cake, consume part of it, and then want to return it because they’re planning to revert to their earlier diet? 

Tessa Thompson, Bill Camp: seeing right through it all.

If there’s support for Irene, it’s in the form of writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp in a quietly effective turn), who may or may not be struggling with a form of passing of his own: which is why he senses something about Clare right away. Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel by the same name, Passing is an exquisite look at the forms and factors of divides that run in societies. It ran deep then. It runs deeper now. Shot in stunning frames of black and white—a beautiful choice for a movie that hinges on the colors defined by how they interact with light rays—cinematographer Eduard Grau details each setting with grace. Those rays could be a metaphor for societal insult and racism, and blacks absorb all of it. The whites in the movie—and in life—reflect most of it, a mirror to their behavior. But what of the likes of Clare? In passing, what do they absorb? Or is it that the absorption process took such a toll that they had to begin artificially reducing it? Isn’t that the promise of feigned whitening products? Aren’t we all passing, bit by bit, eroding and erasing our origins?

Aren’t we all passing?

As Irene’s life gets upended by her friend from the past, even as she tries her best to bubble-wrap her sons from the skin-colored reality that’ll paint their future—much to husband Brian’s chagrin—the act of passing and of accepting its reversal takes its toll. With composer Devonté Hynes employing haunting fumes of piano pieces that rise from the implosion, the movie sticks with you, much like the conversation with a close acquaintance from a shared past. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga reflect and deflect their acts with shards of unspoken desire, slivers of unseen dreams, and clouds of uneasy existence. Their characters know the price we pay for trying to return to our origins is but a compounded interest of the one we paid for passing. 

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Passing is streaming on Netflix and rated  U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for serious theme sets..

Director Rebecca Hall Time 1h 38min
Writers Rebecca Hall, Nella Larsen (based on the novel by)
Stars Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Alexander Skarsgård, André Holland, Bill Camp 
Genres Drama