Passing Movie Review

Review by Judah Clayton

This review contains slight spoilers for the movie Passing (2021). Movie TW for racism (including racial slurs) and colorism.

Passing is based on the 1929 novel of the same name, written by Nella Larsen. Larsen, a librarian and nurse, did not write very many books, but the works she did write are praised for their quality. I’ve never read Passing, but after watching the movie I’m inclined to, because this movie was good.

The movie is in black and white, and I think that’s for a reason, other than it taking place in the 1920s. The main characters of the movie, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), are middle-to-upper class black women that can “pass for white.” Putting the movie in black and white makes it harder to distinguish the tone of the characters, obscuring their skin tone and making it seem more likely that they could pass for white. Despite this, Irene has Afrocentric facial features, and in my mind, there is no way that she passes for white. Even as this is the case, it was easy for me to suspend my disbelief. The black and white aspect of the movie definitely helped with this.

Irene and Clare were friends in their youth but have since grown apart. A chance encounter in NYC brings them back into each other’s lives, and they see how different their paths have become. Irene has a Black husband, Black children, and is a charity worker of the Negro Wellness League. Clare has married a racist white man and makes a comment about being thankful that her child was born white passing as well. She obscures her blackness, hiding it away, while Irene embraces hers. Irene does not want to pass, and Clare must pass to survive.

The early scenes in the movie are shot in a very artistic style. This might be good or bad, depending on how artsy you enjoy your movies, but I adore it. Some of these scenes are really unsettling. In the beginning, Irene is at a Café, passing for white to get a seat. Clare stares at her from across the room. Clare is staring at her in recognition, but it’s unclear to the viewer as to whether this recognition is of her blackness or recognizing her from the past. It’s an uncomfortable series of shots that shows the pressure that Irene is under to pass in public spaces, away from her Black community.

After meeting Clare’s husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), Irene decides she wants nothing more to do with Clare and does not answer her letters. Her husband Brian (André Holland) agrees with her decision. Despite this, Clare shows up on her doorstep, all but demanding a reconnection with her blackness in a way that she feels only Irene can provide. Her perceived whiteness in all aspects of her life is killing her.

Irene is faced with a choice. Does she protect Clare from the death of her identity, or does she protect herself? Some scenes suggest Clare is flirting with blackness; she wants the fun and glamour of the Black social life without committing to the hardships that come with being Black in the ‘20s, and this clearly harms Irene, despite her composure. She remains strong and poised, even when her comfortable life threatens to come crashing down around her. However, this façade has cracks, and they show this more and more with each action that Clare takes.

The way this movie handles the subjects of race and passing is poignant and thought-provoking. The metaphor of death as it applies to the idea of passing raises questions but provides few answers, leaving the viewer to form their own opinion of what defines “Black.” The movie also touches on a lot of other topics, such as the voyeurism of “outsiders” into the Black community, as exemplified by the character of Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), who probes into Irene’s life and passes judgments that are questionable for him to pass as a white man.

Clare’s unconscious manipulation of Irene is another significant part of the movie. Irene idolizes Clare. She idolizes her beauty, her boisterous and youthful charm, her ability to be so joyful at the thought of her own blackness. There is literally a scene that is through Irene’s eyes, showing Clare bathed in the light of the blinding sun like some sort of angel as she poses gracefully. Combine that with Clare’s weaponization of her own emotions, and you have a toxic friendship with one of the most complicated dynamics I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Passing is worth the 90 minutes it takes to watch. It’s definitely a film I’m coming back to, and one that warrants a more complex and professional analysis than I’m able to provide here.

Give it a watch and challenge your thoughts of what it means to pass, and what it means to survive.

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