Review: ‘Passing’ (2021), starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga

December 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Photo by Edu Grau/Netflix)

“Passing” (2021)

Directed by Rebecca Hall

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the late 1920s, the dramatic film “Passing” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two African American women, who were friends in high school, see each other for the first time in years and find out that they are living two very different lives: One of the women lives as her true identity as a black woman, while the other woman passes herself off as white. 

Culture Audience: “Passing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about how racial identity affects people’s perceptions about themselves and about other people.

André Holland and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Photo by Emily V. Aragones/Netflix)

If you could live your life identifying as another race, would you do it? It’s a question that viewers will inevitably have when watching the dramatic film “Passing,” where racial identity is used as both a weapon and as a shield, depending on the individual and the racial identity that the person presents to the world. Social class and sexuality are other identities that “Passing” shows can be used to confine or liberate people. A talented cast and steady direction from Rebecca Hall bring a cinematic vibrancy to this fictional story from the 1920s, but it’s a story that applies to many people’s lives in the past, present and future.

“Passing,” written and directed by Rebecca Hall, is Hall’s feature-film directorial debut. She adapted the movie from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Larsen based the novel on her own experiences as a biracial person (her father was African American and her mother was Dutch), who was raised by her mother and white stepfather. Hall (who is British) also has “passing as white” in her family history: Hall’s maternal grandfather was an African American who passed himself off as white, according to the “Passing” production notes and according to what Hall has said in interviews.

“Passing” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Although the “Passing” novel and the movie are set the late 1920s, many of the same social constructs exist today. Most societies still expect biracial or multiracial people to choose just one race to identify with the most. And white supremacy still makes people think that the “whiter” someone is, the more “superior” that person is, and therefore more entitled to the best things that life has to offer.

It’s why in the story of “Passing,” when two African American women who were friends from high school, see each other for the first time in about 12 years, one of them has decided to live her life as a white woman. It’s a sweltering day in New York City when Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) stops by the restaurant of the upscale Drayton Hotel to cool off and have some lunch. Irene is a light-skinned black woman who considers herself to be a cultured and classy, but she knows that as long as people know that she is black, she won’t be allowed into certain places, such as this hotel whose guests are white people.

Therefore, when Irene is out in public, she tends to wear outfits (such as a hat that’s worn low enough to obscure much of her eyes) and talk a certain way so that people assume that she might be white. She doesn’t deny that she’s black, but she lets people think that she’s white if it helps her get through her day a lot easier. Irene lives in New York Cit’s Harlem neighborhood with her doctor husband Brian (played by André Holland) and their two sons Junior (played by Ethan Barrett) and Ted (played by Justus David Graham). Junior is about 10 or 11, whle Ted is about 8 or 9.

At the Drayton Hotel’s restaurant, Irene sees another woman sitting by herself at a table nearby. They look at each other, almost like they’ve just seen a ghost from their past. The other woman is Clare Kendry Bellew (played by Ruth Negga), who was a close friend of Irene’s when they were both in high school. Irene and Clare haven’t communicated with each other in the approximately 12 years since they’ve seen each other. They’re about to find out how their lives have gone down different paths.

After Clare and Irene greet each other and make small talk, Clare says that she’s visiting from Chicago. Clare is married to businessman named John Bellew (played by Alexander Skarsgård), and they have a daughter together named Marjorie, who is not on the trip with them and who is never seen in the movie. Clare proudly announces to Irene that John is white, and that they are raising their daughter as white. Clare also mentions that she was worried before Marjorie was born what shade the child’s skin color would be.

And there’s something else: John doesn’t know that Clare is not white. Clare was raised by her white aunts, which is one of the reasons why it was easy for her to conceal her true racial identity from John. Clare smugly comments on the burden of lying to her husband and many other people about her true racial identity: “All things considered, it was worth the price.”

When Irene says that she’s married to a black man who’s a doctor, Clare laughs in a surprised and condescending way. It’s as if Clare can’t believe that Irene chose to marry a black man with the knowledge that by doing so, Irene’s life would be harder. Irene asks Clare with some curiosity and envy if Clare is happy. Clare gloats, “Of course! I have everything I wanted!”

Shortly after this somewhat awkward reunion, John joins Clare at the restaurant table. Because this restaurant’s customers are white people and because Clare is talking to Irene, John incorrectly assumes that Irene must be white. He tells Irene that Clare dislikes black people so much that Clare won’t even have black maids. And in case it wasn’t clear that John is a racist, he says the “n” word during this conversation.

Clare smiles and agrees with John, without seeming to care how this conversation might be hurting Irene, who is too polite to object to all the racist talk in the conversation. However, it’s clear from the expression on Irene’s face that she’s feels hurt and betrayed. And so, when the conversation ends with Clare saying that they should keep in touch, Irene can barely hide the look of disbelief at Clare’s blatant phoniness.

At home, Irene tells her husband Brian about this uncomfortable encounter. He’s appalled, and he advises Irene to completely distance herself from Clare if Clare tries to get in touch with Irene again. At first, Irene takes that advice by ignoring the apology letter that Clare sends to her.

But one day, Clare shows up at Irene’s home unannounced and uninvited. This time, Clare says that she’s traveled to New York City for an extended visit without her husband and child. Clare is able to charm her way back into Irene’s life, with results that neither woman expects.

“Passing” is a “slow burn” movie where the pacing might be too sluggish for some viewers. But as a psychological drama, the movie is fascinating. It might be worth it to watch the movie more than once to pick up on subtle clues that might not have been noticed during the first viewing.

During Clare’s extended visit, she spends most of her time in Harlem, where she is introduced to Irene and David’s social circle. Viewers find out that when in Clare and Irene were in high school, Clare was considered to be prettier, more glamorous and more charismatic than reserved and introverted Irene, who often felt overshadowed by Clare. Those same dynamics start to repeat themselves as Clare starts to become the center of attention at social gatherings that she attends with David and Irene.

Things get complicated because of an unspoken romantic attraction that Irene seems to have for Clare that apparently existed since they knew each other in high school. Clare drops big hints in conversations that her own sexuality is fluid, while Irene seems to also be somewhere on the queer spectrum but is definitely in the closet about it. Any sexual attraction between the two women seems to be mostly on Irene’s part, based on the furtive, longing glances that she gives to Clare when Irene thinks no one else is looking.

Clare, who is extremely vain and manipulative, seems to sense this attraction and uses it to her advantage. It should come as no surprise when Clare starts flirting with Irene’s husband Brian, who seems attracted to Clare too. It puts Irene in a difficult situation because she doesn’t want to react too strongly by sending Clare away. After all, Irene still wants Clare to be around because Irene is attracted to Clare.

Meanwhile, Irene and Brian have disagreements over how to teach their sons about the dangers of white supremacist racism. Brian thinks that the boys should know about this harsh reality as soon as possible to prepare them for the real world. Irene thinks that the boys are too young to know, and that this type of knowledge will ruin what she thinks should be the boys’ happy childhoods.

For example, when there’s a newspaper report about a black man being lynched, Brian wants to talk about it with the kids, while Irene vehemently objects. They argue about it. Brian gets so frustrated with Irene that he blurts out to her: “I don’t understand how as intelligent you are, you can be so stupid!”

Over time, it becomes obvious that although Clare is lying about her racial identity to certain people, Irene is in a type of denial of her own—not just about her sexuality, but also about how her children will be treated as black people in a society that enables, teaches, and encourages white supremacy. Clare’s presence is a reminder to Irene about the extreme lengths that people will go to kowtow to a white racist mentality.

However, what Irene doesn’t expect is that Brian, who seemed to be all about black pride and who previously disapproved of Clare, is starting to grow closer to Clare. As for Clare, it’s eventually revealed that her so-called “perfect” life with her husband John isn’t so perfect after all. Clare’s lies about her racial identity have affected her a lot more than what she originally told Irene.

“Passing” has a few other characters in the movie who are mostly there as people who are part of Irene and David’s social life. Hugh (played by Bill Camp) is a white bachelor who is among the well-to-do white people who think it makes them look “cool” to hang out with black people in Harlem, but the same black people would never be invited into these white people’s homes. Hugh is a big gossip who likes making sarcastic observations about people.

Another person in the movie’s party scenes is black man named Ralph Hazleton (played by Amos Machanic), whose dance partners are often white women. Ralph often gets mentioned as an example when Hugh and other people at these parties talk about dark-skinned black men who attract white women. When Hugh asks Irene if she thinks Ralph is handsome, she says no but that Ralph is “exotic.” It’s left up to viewer intepretation to think if Irene really believes that or she just said something that she thought Hugh wanted to hear.

These are all just side characters to the main focus of the story, which is about Clare and Irene’s rekindled friendship and how it starts to affect Irene’s marriage to David. “Passing” could have taken a predictable melodrama route by turning this story into a love triangle involving screaming arguments or women catfighting over a man. But the movie has a low-key approach that is more about repressed feelings, with fear bubbling under the surface that secrets might be revealed.

Negga rises to the challenge of depicting Clare, who could be completely unlikable, as a complex character who is neither a hero nor a villain but someone who masks her insecurity with a “bon vivant” personality that can shapeshift to whatever can get Clare what she wants. When Clare sees that Irene is happily married and that Irene doesn’t have the burden of pretending to be another race, Clare wants some of that happiness too.

Thompson gives Irene an aura of someone who is used to being hurt but is trying to hold on to whatever dignity that she has when she’s in situations that cause her emotional pain. It’s why she’s reluctant to confront people or cause a scene. And it’s why she wants to delay as much as possible how and when her sons find out about the evils of racism.

“Passing” was filmed in black and white, using 4:3 aspect ratio, which was the standard aspect ratio for movies of the 1920s and 1930s. The movie admirably recreates a lot of other characteristics of the era, such the costume design, production design and music. Thompson’s body language and speech patterns as Irene seem particularly calibrated to embody someone from that era who wants to be a highly respected society woman, no matter who is with her. Irene is not someone who talks one way with white people and another way with black people. Clare, who comes from a higher-income household than Irene does, is the one who seems coarser and less refined than Irene when Clare is around other African Americans.

What the cast members and Hall are able to achieve with this film is more than commentary about people’s attitudes when it comes to race, social class or sexuality. By the end of the movie, audiences will understand that “Passing” is ultimately about truth telling about ourselves and other people. And telling the truth can sometimes have dangerous consequences when people are invested in perpetuating lies or keeping secrets.

Netflix released “Passing” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 10, 2021.

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