Writer Trey Kyeremeh analyses the Sundance favourite, considering its creative choices and what it means to truly “pass”.
Rebecca Hall’s Passing is a film based on the same-titled novel written by Nella Larson in 1929. Set in 1920s Harlem, New York, the black and white drama explores the entanglement of childhood friends Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) and Clare (played by Ruth Negga) who meet whilst passing for White women. The action of Passing is when a person of a certain racial group can be perceived to belong to another.
From the jump we are introduced to Irene, passing as White out of convenience to get toys for her dark-skinned children. On the other hand, Clare has been passing for White her entire adult-life and is married to a violently racist, wealthy, White man, John Bellew. His casual use of the N-word, once in the film, is enough to send a shiver down your spine.
After their tumultuous encounter Clare regrets choosing the social currency that Whiteness provides; instead she craves the life Irene has. Irene becomes the only viable conduit for Clare, even in the midst of uncertainty and worry Irene accepts this position, welcoming her into upper-class Black Harlem. The climax of the film is not reduced to racial discourse, as Clare’s mission for Irene’s life does not end at her Black pride, and a potential love triangle comes to the surface. Successfully, the film explores the intersection of race and relationships.
“Clare regrets choosing the social currency that Whiteness provides; instead she craves the life Irene has…”
Passing stands out in this nuanced genre of film because we are not stereotypically exploring the wonders the White world brings for Black individuals. Instead the audience becomes both judge and jury as to whether Clare deserves absolution from her abandonment, and the reward of reintegration into the Black community.
As Clare starts to assimilate back into her world her transatlantic accent quickly shifts, to an African American dialect with a southern drawl. She asks Zoe, Irene’s househelp, “What’s cooking? Yams? How you fixin’ ‘em?” then refers to the dish as, “the most perfect taste on God’s Earth”. This short scene draws attention to how volatile the constructed-concept of race is, and how complex culture and tradition is. The film evokes bigger questions that resonate with contemporary discourse in the Black community surrounding people who hid their blackness until it became profitable, cool or beneficial.
“The film evokes bigger questions that resonate with contemporary discourse in the Black community surrounding people who hid their blackness until it became profitable, cool or beneficial.”
Clare’s re-entrance into the culture is an omen throughout the film: what is the cost of rejecting Whiteness? Is she rewarded like the prodigal daughter or rejected like Judas? Irene’s mental stability slowly unravels and her previous steadfast pride is compromised when Clare becomes a threat. But through what might be archetypal character portrayals, neither party can be labelled the protagonist or antagonist. Instead there is a constant fluctuation in power, morality and justification. In the end it’s up to viewers to decide.
The choice to put this Sundance film in monochrome attempts to emphasise the film’s exploration of the bi-lateral world of race. Dramaturgically, it doesn’t add much to the film itself. There are some impressive stills and portrait shot clips that make the character monologues a little more hitting but not enough for colour to be stripped of this creation. White viewers might find this adaptation insightful and thought-provoking but for Black viewers Thompson and Negga have the “I Knew It” biracial phenotype. If we’re really going to talk about the nuanced realities of passing we need a Meghan Markle, or Zendaya, or Beyoncé (pre-Lemonade post-B’Day) looking-actress in a sequel to physically embody the role. For White viewers this could be another film to add to your “Black Lives Matter” or your “Black Stories” collection. Although, for Black and Mixed-Raced viewers I believe the film won’t hit that spot.