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‘Passing’ – Beyond Black and White
Black and white film is, of course, not simply limited to black and white. In fact, by removing the distraction of color from photography, a filmmaker can allow the eye to notice all the grey areas of the world, and just how complex and nuanced those greys can be. This is certainly true of ‘Passing’, a new film from Rebecca Hall, based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. The film tells the story of Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), two Black women in 1920’s New York City who are able to ‘pass’ for White. For Irene, this means being able to occasionally shop at department stores or have a luncheon at an exclusive hotel. For Clare, it is her entire identity. She has married the wealthy, deeply racist John (Alexander Skarsgård) with whom she has a daughter. Remarkably, Clare has managed to keep the secret of her race from her White husband.
Irene and Clare grew up together and grew apart, only to fatefully meet again as adults. After a disastrous introduction during which John casually uses racial slurs and openly discusses his prejudice (he believes Irene to be White as well), Irene avoids Clare. Yet their relationship with each other mirrors their relationship with their race. For Irene, she feels responsible for Clare as she feels responsible for the betterment of all African Americans (she is an active organizer for the Negro Welfare League). Clare, on the other hand, has hidden and suppressed her identity for so long that she now feels an irresistible urge to reawaken it, and she sees Irene as a symbol of everything she has given up by rejecting her race.
Clare and Irene
As played by Ruth Negga, Clare is on the surface a charming coquette, a facade of imploring glances and easy smiles that masks a boundless agony. It is an unforgettable performance, full of tragic poetry. Clare apologetically manipulates her way into Irene’s life, waltzing into her inner circle and weaving her friend’s connections around her like a cocoon. Of course, she makes a tremendous impression. She is the flame that burns twice as bright, and half as long. She’s reminiscent of Daisy Buchanan, of Blanche DuBois. She flaunts the privilege of her ‘passing’. She seems to both fear and desire the destruction of her ruse.
Ironically, Irene is by far the more cautious of the two. For her, race is not an inconvenient birthmark that she covers with the fripperies of Whiteness, but a core aspect of her identity. There is the implication that Irene, knowing that she could ‘pass’, has invested all the more intensely into her Blackness. She is the emotional support to her husband Brian (André Holland), a prominent Black doctor in the community, and she is devoted to the education and protection of her children. At times, her carefulness turns to coldness. The constant vulnerability creates a stiffness in the atmosphere of Irene’s household–Brian is constantly exhausted and sexually frustrated, while Irene desperately coddles her children and distracts herself with charity. Tessa Thompson grounds the film, but her performance is anything but straightforward. As the seemingly carefree Clare insinuates herself deeper into Irene’s life, we see an emotional journey of values and commitments weighed and considered in Irene’s countenance.
The fetishization of the Exotic
In the film’s 1920’s New York, the reality of racism is not something the average White person sees as a problem. Many wear it as a badge of honor or wield it as a tool with which they can maintain their fragile sense of superiority. The token Whites who attend Irene’s Negro Welfare League seem to treat equality more as an idle hobby than a call to arms. At the Negro Welfare League dance, an event that Irene takes immense pride in organizing, we see just how subtle the shades of grey can be. Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), a well-known White writer who has taken up racial equality as his cause célèbre, analyzes the dancers conspiratorially with Irene.
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They dissect issues that continue to be thorny subjects for debate to this day, such as whether preference is subconsciously given to Black people with lighter skin tones, or whether some Whites become fascinated by Black culture due to its perceived exoticism, resulting in fetishization. Is the fetishization of the exotic, a subconscious reaction to fear, an over-correction? Perhaps this subconscious reaction explains the behavior of Clare’s husband John, who notices his wife’s darkening skin tone but jokes, “You can turn as Black as you please, I know you’re not colored.” On the dancefloor, Hugh zeroes in on Clare, who has of course thrown caution to the wind to attend the dance and become the center of attention. Even he, the perceptive artist, cannot see through the illusion. Perhaps nothing can fool the eye better than the desire to be fooled.
Whispers and Innuendoes
‘Passing’ is a somber, contemplative film, set in the snowglobe that was New York City before the escalating unrest of the 20th century. Among the genteel, race is mostly a matter of whispers and innuendoes, a taboo to be absorbed into the sound-dampening snow that blankets the pavement. Snow covers the city the way Clare and Irene cover themselves in makeup in order to ‘pass’, and it completely alters perception. From a practical standpoint, there is a sense of safety to winter, a time of year when one can retreat into warm clothing, seek refuge among friends and family, and enjoy the rituals of the hearth. Eventually, the snow will melt, returning us to the jagged edges of our reality whether we like them or not.
The film’s sound design is incredible; scenes are frequently established with a layer of pedestrian chatter before the narrative focus pulls in to find the thread of the story. It creates a sense of judgment, of surveillance. If a person is deemed second class because of their skin color, they are always a potential target. Cinematographer Eduard Grau does an exquisite job lensing the contrasts of the season, increasing the potency of the visual metaphor. The elegant look of the film pairs excellently with a sparse jazz soundtrack from Devonte Hynes, creating a world that could be idyllic were it not for the pollution below the layer of frost.
‘Passing’ debuted as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
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