Movies about race often cover the legal and social reality of racism. But many ignore the genuine psychological and emotional strain of living in a country that actively threatens you with violence, an artifact of whiteness behind the camera. It’s no coincidence that the films that tackle this often tend to be directed by PoC.
Rebecca Hall’s Passing is a different beast altogether. The act of passing comes from light-skinned Blacks passing for white. Hall herself comes from a family with a legacy of passing and imbues the film with a personal touch, even though the film takes place in the 1920s.
Based on the book of the same name by Nella Larson, Passing is about two women Irene, “Reenie” (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Both women are well-to-do to do, but Irene lives in Harlem with her doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland) while Clare lives uptown with her wealthy, white, bigoted husband John (Alexander Skarsgard). Of the many things Passing does well, one of which is to show the tightrope act people who try to pass must walk.
John hates Black people. In one scene after the two have just met in a White Only Hotel, Reenie meets John and is appalled by his pet name for his wife, “Nig”. Clare thinks it’s hilarious because John merely thinks she’s tan. But Reenie sees the danger in John’s hatred and even boldly questions him on how he feels about Black people.
Tension fills the scene like the summer heat, almost suffocating. Thompson’s Reenie is not as light-skinned as Clare, but she is enough to pass for John. But it illustrates another point: no one, not even white bigots who are so weirdly obsessed with skin color, really understands race. Reenie’s husband even says as much after receiving a letter from Clare a few days later wanting to meet again.
Reenie, still upset after listening to John, can’t understand why Clare wants to visit. “They have to work hard at getting there; why would they wanna come back?” She’s referring to how people who pass for white must abandon all pretense and ties with the Black community for fear of being found out. Brian shrugs. “If I knew that, I’d know what race is.”
Hall and her cinematographer, Eduard Grau, shot Passing in black and white, illustrating Brian’s frustration. Black and white photography isn’t black and white; it’s grey. The photography highlights the segregation while also showcasing how frightfully arbitrary race is in society. Race is a social construct, but racism is very real and is more than a social construct, for it has been woven into the very fabric of our constructed society.
Passing is about more than race, however. Underneath the veneer of it all simmers Reenie’s desire for Clare. Clare exists without a care in the world, seemingly without boundaries. The luxury of being perceived as white.
Hall and her script keep us guessing just how much Clare returns Reenie’s feelings. The film is, after all, from Reenie’s point of view. Soon she begins to wonder if Brian is falling for Clare too. The two do spend an awful lot of time together, yet that is also because Reenie often pushes them to go places without her.
Passing does all of this while behaving like an early 20s melodrama. Reenie is an intelligent woman but is also naive. Brian often talks about wanting to leave America for someplace else. Reenie agrees, but only somewhat; she wants to visit, not escape. She also objects to Brian’s attempt to educate their children about the world’s violence around them.
The part of Reenie that is jealous of Clare has no such worries. White people don’t have to tell their children about lynchings or warn them that one day someone might hurl a slur at them for no Earthly reason other than that they exist.
Hall and Grau make Passing an intimate portrait of Reenie’s delicate psyche. Clare and Reenie are both wealthy, but only one is perceived as white. Add to all this Clare’s realization that she misses her people and culture. A random meeting between two old schoolgirl friends has begun to blossom into a fraught relationship filled with conversations where the things not said, linger long after the scene has ended.
Eventually, we meet Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), one of those white writers who write about the Black experience and can sometimes feel as if his trips to Harlem are less sociological and more touristy. He brings sophistication to Reenie’s world before Clare. Camp’s performance hints that Hugh might also, like Reenie, be looking to pass for straight.
If there is a flaw in Passing, Hall leaves a little too much weight for her actors to shoulder. Hall and Grau play with screen ratios but do little effect. The lighting is superb but as good as Passing looks; the images rarely move the narrative along. Grau’s camera lingers on the actors, and Thompson, Negga, and Holland, do not disappoint, but the subtle tension comes more from their longing looks than Grau’s camera.
This is not to say the film looks terrible or that Hall and Grau do not utilize visuals to give us insights into Reenie’s emotional state. For example, one shot has Reenie coming down the stairs and catching Brian and Clare in the mirror, standing close together, only to turn the corner and see they are standing on opposite sides of the room. Hall has a beautiful eye for framing and understands how to use the camera to express a character’s inner emotions. But it doesn’t quite nail how to use the camera to help allude to the subtext.
Not that they aren’t up to it, Negga and Thompson bring such opposing personalities that they can’t help but attract one another. Negga’s Clare is a radiant debutante full of life, the kind of woman who somehow makes friends out of everyone she meets-even the people who initially despise her.
On the other hand, Thompson’s Reenie is a cautious, introspective, loving mother. So much so that the entire reason Reenie was in the white part of town was to buy her son a toy. It is her children that trouble her. They can not pass, and the violence of Clare’s husband, and other white people like him, concerns Reenie greatly. The fear of what Clare might bring with her if her husband should discover her Blackness is what leads to the film’s tragic conclusion.
Hall imbues the story with a quiet power as she tells a love story-just, not one where we’re sure who is in love with who-all the while dissecting race and class. Passing is an example of a film that rewards you upon rewatching it. Its secrets and delights are held in furtive glances along with subtle intonations. Dreamlike at times, terse and matter of fact at others, Passing let its characters breathe with grace and intelligence, which is more than can be said for their country.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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