Harlem has never looked so beautiful as it does in “Passing,” the new film directed by Rebecca Hall based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel.
The film begins in the sweltering heat of a brutally hot, Prohibition-era summer. Most people of color understand without an explanation what “passing” means. And I suspect most white people don’t ponder it much since the color of their skin slides them into a box marked—so clearly—“Privileged.”
Just so that we can all be on the same uncomfortable page, “passing” is being of African American heritage, but so fair of skin and other features that the person can easily “pass” as white.
Shot in black and white, Hall (a first-time filmmaker) adds a delicate touch.
As it happens, this sweltering summer day will impact Irene’s life (Tessa Thompson) forever. She’s downtown on an errand to purchase a toy for her son, in a store filled with white people, and she’s visibly uncomfortable wearing a big sun hat with a veil. Hiding under the hat no one notices her but when she arrives at a fancy hotel to escape the unforgiving sun someone spots her dead on, and that someone is Clare (Ruth Negga), a childhood friend from Chicago, now unrecognizably glamorous and very white, with blonde hair, arched, lightened brows, and passing as a white woman.
There is something beautiful about the crackle in the air. The tension rises fast and hard between their silences. Irene’s anxiety peeks as this strange white woman begins to press her. Finally, it registers that this isn’t a white woman at all, it’s her old friend and more to the point, her old African American childhood friend.
Negga as the tragically drawn Clare commands attention and draws stares in every room she enters.
To Ruth’s surprise, Clare has been passing as white for years and, to push the tension even higher, she’s married to a racist John (Alexander Skarsgard), a white man who believes that he’s married to a white woman. He’s also the father of her child.
But meeting Irene again tears open her closed doors and Claire can’t help being drawn to her Blackness like a moth to the flame.
So, behind John’s back, Claire begins to insert herself into Ruth’s life and that includes flirting with her doctor husband, Brian (Andre Holland), and showing up at the couple’s handsome Harlem brownstone without an invitation. Did that white privilege rub off on her?
Clare is envious of Irene’s stability. Envious that she’s not living her life as a lie. Envious of her bold Blackness.
The story moves along like a jazz song with jazz-piano trills provided by Devonté Hynes score and set to the lush black-and-white photography courtesy of DP Edu Grau.
Story-wise, not much happens. I’d offer that “Passing” is a series of moments held together by the beautiful cinematography and strong performances.
“Passing” is Irene’s story, with Clare just a new diversion. It’s almost like we are living inside her head. Irene is as flawed and miserable as Clare. Irene’s as caught as Clare is caught, but by different circumstances.
For example, the way Irene treats her African American housekeeper Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins) makes you wonder if she has those “I am better than you” moments. This relationship also brings more dramatic tension without anyone raising their voices.
“Passing” also touches on feeling like a victim (real or imagined) and it asks the question (without asking the question outright) what would my freedom be like, really, in a world that hates me just because of the color of my skin.
Clare breaks down the reason she chooses to hide in the first act. It’s all about money and she wants that with the social status, and she’s willing to suppress her very DNA to get it.
“All things considered, it’s worth the price,” she declares. Is it?
“Passing” on Netflix. Starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Ashley Ware Jenkins.