Passing movie review: the realities and fallacies of race

part of my Movies for the Resistance, On Netflix Globally, and Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Everything about this astonishing, just-plain-satisfying film feels like a revelation. Bone-deep subversive yet universal, dripping with a quiet dread yet also beautiful and beautifully wise.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women, especially marginalized women; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Everything about Passing, the astonishing and just-plain-satisfying debut of actor Rebecca Hall as a writer and director, feels like a revelation. This is a movie that is simultaneously incredibly modern, like it could only have been made today, but also could be a little treasure rediscovered from pre-Code Hollywood. Not just because it’s based on a novel, by Nella Larsen, from 1929. And not just because of Hall’s choices to shoot in black-and-white and in an old-fashioned square aspect ratio. But because it feels like Passing could have been one of the movies that inspired that absolute bastard Will H. Hays to implement his censorious code.

A movie about the interior lives of Black women? (Are Black women human? Signs point to yes!) About happy — and materially successful — Black family life that is able to find joy even in a society that wants to crush it? About the perniciousness of racism that leads some Black people, when they are able to, to pretend they are White? That suggests that while racism is of course incredibly real and dangerous, race itself is complete invention that would not endure if it were not serving some insidious purpose?

Oh yes, Passing is bone-deep subversive. Even today. It shouldn’t have to be, but thank goodness that it is.

Passing Ruth Negga
It can be lonely, not quite fitting in anywhere…

There is such calming ordinariness, in a way that we see onscreen almost vanishingly, in Passing’s portrait of Irene (Tessa Thompson: Men in Black: International, Avengers: Endgame). We meet her as she’s out and about on a sweltering summer’s day in Manhattan, doing little shopping chores — looking for a birthday gift for one of her young sons — then stopping for a refreshment of tea at a hotel cafe. Though we also feel her tension, her trepidation, in every interaction, from shop clerk to hotel doorman, as she peeks out from under the rim of her stylish summer hat: Is she, a Black woman, being treated politely because she is encountering White people willing to let her be… or is she actually passing for White, and hence flying under the racial radar? This might be a thing we, as viewers, didn’t clock if we didn’t know in advance what the movie was about, but as Hall presents Irene, as Thompson plays her anxious coyness, and as our foreknowledge allows, Passing drips with a quiet dread from its opening moments.

But that’s nothing to what happens when, in that hotel cafe, Irene runs into an old friend from school she hasn’t seen for years: Clare (Ruth Negga: Warcraft, World War Z), who is passing for White so well that her obnoxiously racist husband, wealthy banker John (Alexander Skarsgård: Godzilla vs. Kong, Long Shot), doesn’t even realize his wife is a Negro. (The film uses appropriate historical language, so Negro and colored are used as synonyms for Black. In fact, I don’t think the word Black is used at all, at least not in the way we use it today. And a forewarning: The n-word also makes a very occasional appearance.)

Passing Andre Holland Tessa Thompson
Irene’s relationship with Clare causes some strife at home…

The women reconnect, and a new friendship slowly develops between them, which we witness very much from Irene’s delicately half-baffled, half-astonished perspective. The risk with which Clare lives seems to unnerve Irene… and it unnerves us, too. There’s a brittle whistling-past-the-graveyard ominousness to Negga’s performance, as if Clare, who bursts with joie de vivre, is perhaps desperate to enjoy the precarious charm of her life while she can, because it could be snatched away at any moment.

Obviously I have no idea what it means to move through this world with Black skin, but I wonder if that’s something that rings true still for Black people today, in a way that has nothing to do with “passing.” That no matter how happy you are just living your life, at any moment something or someone could remind you that you are, in the eyes of some, different, less than. Other.

Passing Ruth Negga Alexander Skarsgard
Portrait of an incredibly unhealthy marriage…

Hall’s own family history — one of her grandfathers was of African-American and White European heritage who passed for white — is part of the extraordinary tapestry of identity woven into Passing. Just as Edu Grau’s (Suffragette, The Gift) gorgeous cinematography eliminates subtle differences in skin tone among the cast, Hall’s approach to her story shares Irene’s flummoxed bemusement. What does “race” mean, anyway, when skin color occurs along a spectrum, and when the perceptions of others can be so malleable?

The lovely jazz-age-inspired score by Devonté Hynes (Fifty Shades of Grey, Palo Alto) among other aspects of the film — Prohibition! — roots Passing in 1920s New York, but it’s universal, too. This is a movie not only about race but also about class, motherhood, and marriage. (Irene is also married, to Brian [André Holland: Moonlight, Selma], a doctor.) It’s about how all the many things that are expected of us from the world become things we embrace, or push back against, or struggle to reconcile within ourselves. As Irene notes, “We’re all of us passing for something or other.” That, like the film as a whole, is beautiful, and beautifully wise.


more films like this:
• BlacKkKlansman [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV]
• Loving [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Netflix US]

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Bluejay
Bluejay
Thu, Jan 20, 2022 3:03pm

I was wondering if you’d seen this! And I agree with your review. This was utterly beautiful (and anguishing), and it blew me away.

Thompson and Negga are just massively talented and amazing. It’s been discussed online how it was an interesting move to cast two actresses who don’t actually pass for white in our modern eyes (even though they do in the context of the story); that way the audience, like Clare and Irene, is constantly and inescapably aware of the gap between how they’re seen in the world and who they really are. If that was intentional, I think it’s a brilliant casting decision.

This is a movie not only about race but also about class, motherhood, and marriage.

There’s a strong LGBTQ subtext to the story too, as some have pointed out; Larsen disguised a (then-taboo) story about lesbian desire as a more familiar story about racial passing. There’s passing on ALL SORTS of levels going on, in the characters, the novel, the film.

I thought the ending was brilliantly ambiguous too. When the tragic thing happens, it’s unclear whether it’s caused by Clare’s husband lunging; by Irene trying to protect (or subconsciously push?) Clare; or by Clare herself—by any or all of the three, a commentary on the tangle of social and psychological forces, external and internal, bringing the characters to this moment.

I thought this interview with Rebecca Hall was fascinating. I haven’t read Larsen’s novel, which is apparently short and reads like a fever dream of prose/poetry, but I’ll definitely seek it out now.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Jan 22, 2022 5:59pm

There’s a strong LGBTQ subtext to the story too

YES!

The ending is perfection. The ambiguity is exactly what the story needs.

Gerrard White
Gerrard White
Sun, Feb 06, 2022 7:55am

Obviously I have no idea what it means to move through this world with Black skin, but I wonder if that’s something that rings true still for Black people today, in a way that has nothing to do with “passing.” That no matter how happy you are just living your life, at any moment something or someone could remind you that you are, in the eyes of some, different, less than. Other.

I think you are being over rhetorical, you do have some idea of what others think and experience, this may be smaller or larger as you can or wish

If you wish for a more adequate notion of racism you can, I’m guessing you are white caucasian; all you have to do is to go to some part of the world where you will be the only or very nearly the only white

You may think that racism is the invention and possession of the white, if so you can find out that, like many white inventions, it has been sold round the world

Given the perversity of the US definition of ‘black’, one drop, together with the wish for extension without limit of such a non definition, anyone and everyone is, or is not, black, whether they like to say so or not – even, perhaps, you

‘Looking’ black is an altogether different subject – in Africa it is common to hear anyone contaminated by white habit or culture treated as white, that goes for all those A-A’s in the USA who like to think they are ‘black’, (for instance) they despised Obama as someone who sold himself into slavery, useless to try and explain to them he was (as good as) white all along

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Gerrard White
Wed, Feb 09, 2022 1:38pm

I’m guessing you are white caucasian

You don’t have to guess. Photos of me are all over the web, including this site. Yes, I’m a white person of, as far as I am aware, exclusively Western European ancestry.

This movie is about racism in America. And racism is about power, which, in America (and many other Western nations) is held by white people. Which is what this movie is about.

Now, would you like to discuss the movie?

Gerrard White
Gerrard White
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Feb 10, 2022 1:26pm

You, plus the film, make statements which pertain only to the US and only to a small ish section of the US

Racism in the US may be about power, but everything in America is about power, exclusively, and what passes for racism in that country is merely a one of the many exploitations inflicted on all other classes by their ruling class

Racism in the rest of the world is not necesssarily so – call it cultural appropriation

The film puts on display those who can be described as middle class or more, comfortable lives clean rooms : a major aspect of contemporary US at least address of the subject is to restrict it, very often and in this case, to an élite grouping or class

The concerns miseries or oppressions on display are trivial, not only within the context of US ‘racism’, but in the context of general oppression in the US, and of course the rest of the world

This film addresses, politely, daintily, a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage and would seek, as per your review, to pass off such quivers in a teacup as of general significance

That is to say the film is merely propaganda- it’s production and consumption seeks to erase the realities and brutalities of those subjects it pretends to show; a prettifyied picture, a delicate cameo of far off days – just look! how bad we were then, how clever we are now !

It’s a film made by Miss Manners for Ms Oscar

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Gerrard White
Sun, Feb 13, 2022 1:53pm

I’m not sure why you need this movie, a very specific story, to be broadly applicable to the entire world. Do you require this of all movies, and if so, is there a single one you believe achieves such an impossible goal?

Gerrard White
Gerrard White
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Feb 14, 2022 12:34pm

On the contrary, propaganda intends to contaminate one and all, without limit of country race or class

The film serves the interest and expresses the view of the ruling class, specifically the US ruling class, but seeks and will find some general echo and audience overseas

The film does not illustrate/describe racism or oppression in any way meaningful, unless it is to comfort those in power in the US and by extension serve their interests everywhere

The subject matter is restricted to a petty series of mini events set long ago in the past : However the propaganda is up to date, and up for sale worldwide – such is the general meaning of the film, the thumbnail of the trivial

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Gerrard White
Sun, Feb 13, 2022 8:33pm

Racism in the US may be about power… Racism in the rest of the world is not necessarily so

If you think racism and colorism in the rest of the world isn’t about power—about constructing a justification to hold power over people and exclude people from power—then I’ve got news for you.

what passes for racism in that country is merely a one of the many exploitations inflicted on all other classes by their ruling class

Those who diminish race issues and insist on discussing class issues outside the context of race are simply wrong, and missing a big part of the picture. Class and race issues are intertwined in the US.

just look! how bad we were then, how clever we are now !

In no way does the film smugly suggest that racism is dead and safely in the past. If you’re unable to view a period piece and understand which of its themes are still relevant today, that’s your problem, not the film’s.

This film addresses, politely, daintily, a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage and would seek, as per your review, to pass off such quivers in a teacup as of general significance

The act of “passing” is an attempt to align oneself with the dominant culture in order to gain its advantages and escape its cruelty towards oppressed groups. The film shows the psychological costs and dangers of doing this, and the often-deadly response of the dominant culture when it feels an oppressed group has intolerably crossed a line. If you don’t think this is of general significance today, I’ve got news for you.

And if you think art about a small group of people or a small moment in time can’t provide a window into more universal human concerns, you’ve got a sadly impoverished view of what art can do.

Gerrard White
Gerrard White
reply to  Bluejay
Mon, Feb 14, 2022 4:30pm

Many in the the US view the world through the narrow perspective of local conditions, but the rest of the world does not conform, in particular Africa

Racism is merely one of the many oppressions the US ruling class uses to crush all other classes, all oppressions align together : their intent is to export these oppressions to the rest of the world –so that they can say and make sure that the world is the same as the US

To address, to pretend to address, present oppressions by re placing them into the distant past, is to diminish the currency and significance of the subject or issue – it is an evasion to avoid representation of contemporary life and concerns, a comfort no matter how cold to picture those of the past, it deprives of any interest/use the tiny lives depicted, except as propaganda

Oppression is always constant and inexorable, to align with the ruling class is impossible : ‘passing’ is never more than failure dressing up in false consciousness, however appealing this is to the media film industry groupuscule who make a living from such pretences and by selling pretensions that others may too

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Gerrard White
Mon, Feb 14, 2022 5:14pm

To address, to pretend to address, present oppressions by re placing them into the distant past, is to diminish the currency and significance of the subject or issue – it is an evasion to avoid representation of contemporary life and concerns

And at no point do you consider the possibility that depictions of historical oppression may SHED LIGHT on current oppression by revealing its origins and asking us to reflect on how much or how little progress we’ve made.

By your logic, Shakespeare—or, for that matter, Alex Haley’s Roots or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or the writings of Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King—have nothing to say to us because their subject matter takes place in the past. Any depiction of historical situations is an avoidance of current concerns, because there’s simply no way that historical narratives can make us reflect on how our problems got started or how persistent they are, right? As I said: what an impoverished view of art you have.

Oppression is always constant and inexorable, to align with the ruling class is impossible : ‘passing’ is never more than failure

Indeed, and the film does not contradict this AT ALL. Tell me you haven’t actually seen the film without telling me you haven’t seen the film.

I’ll leave you to your soapbox now. Have fun.

Gerrard White
Gerrard White
reply to  Bluejay
Tue, Feb 15, 2022 9:20am

To my last comment I should have added that there is a more or less contemporary phrase to describe the media film industry groupuscule devoted to making and promoting propaganda like this film ; ‘running dogs’ is the short version, the long – ‘imperialist running dogs’

They too are merely ‘passing’ to serve the ruling class

One may, indeed, point out this film is a soap, is sponsored content ; the propaganda has not changed : Oppression is this- Carnie hucksters passing both Snake oil and Shakespeare in one breath, now as then