Netflix film ‘Passing’ directed by Rebecca Hall and based on the book by Nella Larsen deals with a taboo subject that is still relevant even today in 2021. The term “Passing” which we previously talked about when the films trailer released, is known in the Black community as the practice in which light-skinned African Americans choose to present themselves as white. Whether it was a conscious choice or an unconscious one, passing is something that has been going on for decades.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, beautifully showcase the struggle of racial identity in ‘Passing.’ Their characters Irene (Thompson) and Clare (Negga) are two women struggling with their own blackness. When they come into each other’s lives after running into one another at a hotel café, life for both of them becomes complicated. Although they knew each other in the past, its clear they are on different paths in life. Irene is married to her doctor husband living in Harlem with their two boys. Clare, on the other hand is living in an upscale part of New York with her husband and their daughter.
The thing about Clare is that she is married to a white man named John (Alexander Skarsgard) who thinks she too is white. Clare has been passing for white since she left her family home years ago. Because she is so fair skinned, it’s easy for her to pull off. Irene is naturally caught off guard by this revelation. What’s interesting about Irene and Clare meeting each other again after many years is that Irene was actually passing herself at the time they reunited. In the opening sequence of the film, Irene is out shopping and she’s out in white only establishments. It’s not glaringly obvious like “No negroes” on signs anywhere but, everything about Irene’s body language indicates she’s in a place she doesn’t belong.
The way Irene keeps her head down low to avoid eye contact with the white women in the shop is not only a way for her to conceal who she is. Black people were always told not to ever look a white person in the eyes, so this action says two things; 1 she doesn’t want to get caught, and 2, she’s practicing what she’s been taught. After Irene leaves the doll shop, she hails a taxi driven by a white man who drops her off at the hotel café. As we watch Irene have all of these encounters, the viewer is trying to determine whether she is aware that people are assuming that she’s white just because she is light skinned. Once she takes out her compact to re-touch her makeup, you then realize she has made herself up to make it even easier for her to pass in those upscale parts of the city.
I’ve seen a lot of people on the internet have talks about passing and they believe it was something made up or found on TikTok. As we can see from the film, passing is not a new thing. Whether someone makes the conscious choice to pass or not, it’s been going on for decades. Now, I’m not an expert on passing but when I say a conscious choice to pass, I mean a person makes the choice to pass for another race when they are really another one. My mom is what I like to use as an example of someone who unconsciously passes.
My mom is a black woman, but she is very, and I mean very fair skinned. Growing up she was never trying to pass for anything. Being black means everything to her and she never wanted to be anything but. She lived in Birmingham Alabama during all the racial segregation and people just assumed because she was light, that she was a white woman. She would even sit at the back of the bus with other black people and has stories of white people having less than favorable things to say about it. She was aware that she was fairer than other black people including some of her siblings, but like I said she never made a conscious choice to do this. People just made assumptions about her.
Passing happens in other cultures as well but that’s not my conversation to have. I’m strictly talking about passing in black communities.
The difference between Irene and Clare is that Irene says that she only passes for convenience when she needs to. Clare has been passing her entire life, so she’s only ever lived her life under the guise of a white woman. Irene does and doesn’t understand why Clare would want to spend her entire life passing when she has to work so hard to hide who she really is. One example of how different Clare’s life has to be is the fact that she won’t have any more children with John for fear of their baby coming out dark skinned. Irene and Clare both believe they have everything they want in life until seeing each other.
There is a moment in the film when it doesn’t seem like Clare’s passing is working as well as she thinks it is because her own husband is noticing that as he puts it, she “seems to be getting darker.” Because of this, he’s started calling her by the disgusting nickname “nig” which is short for exactly what you think it is. Irene is appalled by hearing this and that he hates black people, but she has to play it off because at that particular moment, she’s meeting John who has assumed that because she’s hanging out with Clare and is also light skinned, she’s a white woman.
Racial identity is the main theme of Passing but, it’s not the only one. Passing is also about staying true to who you are. Irene and Clare end up learning all of this the hard way. Both women seem to have something the other wishes they had. Irene represents the life Clare left behind but its one she regrettably misses. That’s obvious in the way she latches onto every single part of Irene and her life including her husband Brian (Andre Holland).
Clare thinks that Irene has the perfect life, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Irene has a strained relationship with Brian. He wants to move somewhere overseas, and Irene wants to stay right where they are. Their children are learning about race and the cruelty of white people. Irene wants her children to stay in a bubble where they don’t learn about things like lynching’s, but Brian feels its important for them as black boys to know how dangerous the world is for them. This leads to a lot of fighting.
Clare is a free spirit with energy that pulls people towards her. She is effortlessly beautiful and doesn’t have to try to make friends. She and Brian become fast friends and that makes Irene jealous. Irene and Clare have an intense vibe around each other so the whole time I watched Passing, I felt like something more was going to happen between them. Especially when Clare wrote to Irene and talked about having a “wild desire.” The way Irene would look at Clare and touch her, gave the impression that she may have been in love with her.
Irene spends a lot of time brooding and sleeping throughout the film and its never really clear why. That was one of my only issues with the film because I was wondering if something had happened to make her that way. Also, at the beginning of the film she has a fit of anxiety when she sees a man lying on the sidewalk in need of help. It doesn’t move the film along and just leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.
Despite Clare’s free spirit, she’s dealing with some pain of her own. The constant act she has to put on is taxing for her. In a moment of anxiety, she makes the statement “I’m not safe” to Irene. It’s a statement that shows the weight of being someone else is taking a toll but it’s also a moment of foreshadowing that leads to an ending that was for me, completely unexpected. Depending on whether or not you’ve read the book, it may or may not be a surprise to you.
Passing is a film that feels old and new at the same time. What Rebecca Hall did with the choice of using black and white for the film as well as shooting in 4:3 aspect adds so much. The black and white lets us know what the story is trying to do because obviously we know that everything is not just black and white. The 4:3 aspect shows us how trapped Irene and Clare both actually feel in their lives. It makes the viewer feel just as trapped while watching.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga give amazing performances and have great chemistry onscreen. I truly believe they deserve whatever recognition they get especially when award season rolls around. Passing is an important film to watch and it will lead to some interesting conversations once the credits have rolled.