Thompson and Negga both deserve Oscars for this very strong and nuanced portrayal of two women who, in different ways, try to escape the racism of the 1920s.
“Passing,” the title of this film [available on Netflix], does not translate easily into Norwegian. The concept of passing applies to the many Black people in the U.S. with light enough complexions to be able pass themselves off as white in order to overcome the barriers of racism.
Writer and director Rebecca Hall bases her story on Nella Larsen’s novel from 1929 about two women who are unexpectedly reunited after 10 years. It happens when Irene (Tessa Thompson) does something that, as a Black woman, she has never before dared, namely to go into a hotel restaurant reserved for whites only. There she experiences what it feels like to pass as white.
When a seemingly white woman stares at her from the end of the room, at first she believes that she has not succeeded. But it is her childhood friend Claire (Ruth Negga), who has made a new life by marrying into an affluent white family. To pass as white is worth the price, she says after some drinks in her suite. What’s more, she is happy that her daughter was born lily-white.
At first, Irene is shocked by Claire’s brazenness. Irene belongs to the self-aware category of Blacks who are allowed to obtain an education and function as a kind of middle class in Harlem.
She considers herself to be quite happy with her husband (André Holland) and their two sons. Yet something draws her to Claire. Perhaps her friend is a mirror image of a life that she herself could have chosen, but there is also something that is awakened in her on a deeper level. Furtive glances at Claire’s body suggests that it could be erotic, but it could equally be something so banal as finding herself bored.
She is a homemaker and lives a life that is not so different from the one that her better-off “white” friend lives. She has Black domestic help and does charity work. But she knows where the boundaries are. With a mixture of fear and delight, she sees how Claire defies these boundaries with steadily growing recklessness.
Strong Directorial Debut
Hall, who is British, is known as a Hollywood actress; this is her debut as a director. She herself grew up with a grandmother who passed as white, but that was in England. In “Passing,” she has assembled an impressive ensemble with high quality actors, and notably there’s an
efficient and complex dynamic between Thompson and Negga.
Together with Hall’s direction, they drive the action forward just as much through intense moods and everyday glimpses into Irene’s apartment as through physical actions. It is impossible to say how the friendship is progressing — in one moment it is close to being passionate, in the next, fearful.
Hall has chosen to create the film in black and white, with an antiquated image ratio (4:3) that shrinks the picture frame. This harmonizes well with the cast’s sense of being confined. Edvard Grau’s photography is nevertheless rich in nuance and always in contrast-filled play between the black and the white. As with Thompson and Negga, it is the gray area she explores.
Some will argue that they immediately see that the two main characters are Black, so how can they pass as white? That is a historically ignorant response that causes people to miss an essential element in the film.
In the 1920s, Italians could just as easily be considered Black in the United States. As Claire’s white husband, played by Alexander Skarsgård, says to her: “Well, you can turn as Black as you please, as far as I’m concerned. I know you’re not colored.”
The American obsession with what they still call “the issue of race” was absurd from the very start. I have seldom seen a film that simply, without great language or gestures, shows how systemic racism permeates everything, even the noblest of intentions. A good example is Irene’s friendship with a “tolerant” white author who, in his particular way, is also tainted by racism.
Hall and the actors have perhaps chosen an unassuming format in order to tell an intense story. But they turn this limitation into an artistic triumph.