Movie Review – Passing (2021)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Rebecca Hall is an English actress who is making her feature debut as writer-director. This is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, which is about two African-American women who have such light-colored skin that they can believably pretend to be White women. African-Americans who do this kind of pretending are obviously those who are mixed-race, meaning that one parent is White, while the other is Black or mixed-race too, or some combination thereof in their ancestry. For some, it’s usually having a White parent or it’s having a Black ancestor in a family that’s otherwise predominantly White. Larsen was the former. Her mother was White. Hall is the latter. Her mother is mixed-race, meaning that Hall has a grandparent or great-grandparent who is Black. Yet, if you didn’t know that, one would most likely assume that Hall is just a White woman.
Following slavery during Reconstruction in the 1860’s to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, the idea of African-Americans pretending to be White and thus hiding their Black identities was a survival tactic. It was a way to avoid the horrors of racism, the discrimination and even the possible death, as lynching of Black people was a common occurrence. Back then, it was understood why a Black person would do it. It was accepted, possibly resented but even something of which to be jealous, even though a mixed-race person meant that an enslaved Black woman was most likely raped in order to bear such a child. Nowadays though, the idea of African-Americans pretending in such a way is seen as itself a kind of racism, as opposed as a response to it.
Tessa Thompson (Men in Black: International and Thor: Ragnarok) stars as Irene Redfield, an African-American who is likely of mixed-race heritage. She lives in Harlem, New York, in a very nice, three-story brownstone in the 1920’s. She can probably afford such a nice home because back then property values, even in New York, probably weren’t as high, particularly in Harlem, which is a neighborhood, specifically for Black people. Yet, she can probably afford such a place because she’s married to a very successful doctor named Brian, played by André Holland who’s probably most known for his role in the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016) but Holland and Thompson worked together previously in Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014).
Irene does a lot of charity work, which involves her interacting with a certain select group of elite people in the city. She interacts with wealthy people and high-class individuals, even the occasional White person who doesn’t mind interacting with Negroes, as Black people were called then. As such, she enjoys a bit of privilege that other Black people don’t. She is perhaps accustomed to it, even though it puts her in a bit of a bubble where she might not experience racism on a regular basis. Therefore, she’d rather not think about it. This is expressed in instances where her husband Brian wants to talk to their sons about the horrors of racism, such as lynching, the effects of which he’s probably witnessed as a doctor in a hospital. Brian wants to talk about it in order to prepare their sons for that potential horror because unlike their mother, the boys can’t pretend to be White and insulate themselves.
Ruth Negga (Ad Astra and Loving) co-stars as Clare Bellow, an African-American who is also of mixed-race heritage. She’s recently come from Chicago and is living in a hotel with her husband. It’s a very nice hotel, an expensive hotel likely in midtown Manhattan, a hotel probably for White people only. The reason that Clare can stay at that hotel is because her husband, John, played by Alexander Skarsgård, is a White man, and somehow, she’s managed to convince John that she’s a White woman, through and through, pure blood, as well as a White woman who is as racist as him and hates Black people. Negga’s performance though is very effervescent, reminiscent of Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and whose character might be just as delusional.
Many might know Skarsgård from his roles in HBO’s Big Little Lies (2017) and True Blood (2008). In both series, he played the villain. Skarsgård recently worked with director Hall as co-stars in Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), but, here, he’s essentially back in villain mode, embodying the absolute worst of racial hatred and danger. For Clare to align herself with him and even marry him shows how desperate she is and how bad the situation can be. I haven’t read Larsen’s book, but that racial hatred and that danger are only hinted in this film. We don’t really see the horrors here. Brian and his sons mention it, but we never see it. One of Clare’s principal worries is that she’ll be exposed as being a Black woman and not a White woman. It’s a worry that’s complicated because she has a child with John, a daughter that we never see. Any dramatist would be tempted not only to show that worry or fear coming to life but what the aftermath would be. We get something like that here, but it’s quick and easy without too much revelation to it, and the film just ends abruptly.
Hall shot this film in black-and-white and in the 4:3 aspect ratio. One reason could be to invoke the look and feel of photography from the time period in which this film is set. Another reason could be to underscore the racial issues at odds here. Hall does an interesting trick. Either through lighting, makeup or post-production VFX, she’s able to make Thompson and Negga look white or whiter than they naturally are. In the opening sequence particularly and in the scene where we first see Irene and Clare together in a predominantly White people environment, their skin seems whiter. This is contrasted later in the film when Irene and Clare are in Harlem in a predominantly Black people environment, their skin seems darker. It’s the equivalent of a cinematic mood ring, but, it’s effective for internal and external perceptions.
For a narrative about people pretending to be something they’re not or hiding who they truly are, one can find symbolism that can be applied elsewhere or to other groups. Specifically, it’s symbolism to be applied to those in the LGBTQ community. “Passing” as it’s termed is not far afield from being “in the closet,” which is the term for when a LGBTQ person hasn’t revealed that they are a part of that community or actively avoids that knowledge coming out. The Q in LGBTQ often stands for queer or questioning. At one point, the characters use the word “queer,” not in that context but it could be a nod to this symbolism being applied to those in the LGBTQ community.
There’s even some intimation that there could be a same-sex attraction between Irene and Clare, which wouldn’t be so crazy, given that this film takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, which had notable LGBTQ figures, such as Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman. It’s nothing ever direct. It’s subtle and delicately handled.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some racial slurs and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.
Available on Netflix.