Passing, or: It’s tough for you to get by (yeah, yeah, yeah)

Not much to say to introduce this week’s pick, other than that it’s been on my watch list for a while and not only features two of my favourite actresses, but is also the directorial debut of another I admire.
The result is devastating and sad and feels somewhat hopeless, which actually feels fitting for an overcast Sunday afternoon in January – incidentally the Sunday before Blue Monday.

Film: Passing (2021)

“Passing follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities.”

Director:
Stars: Tessa ThompsonRuth NeggaAndré Holland

*Spoilers*

Passing (racial identity) via Wikipedia

I put the definition up there mostly for myself as although ‘passing’ is a term I’ve heard a lot, it’s usually been in the context of gender. I’m sure I have read and seen examples of racial passing before but I suppose had never given it as much thought as I have today.

In 1920s New York, Irene Redfield (Thompson) bumps into childhood pal Clare Bellow (Negga) in a posh hotel dining room. Irene is a light-skinned Black woman, while Clare, having been brought up by two Caucasian aunts, “passes” for white, a fact that rattles Irene. Clare is married to a wealthy white man (Alexander Skarsgård) with no inkling of her heritage.

In fact, in a very tense meeting between the three of them, John assumes Irene, like his wife, is also white and drops some incredibly racist language which infuriates her. Clare later writes to Irene, hoping to reignite their friendship but the latter is reluctant given the recent situation. So Clare does probably the worst thing in the entire world, she drops by unannounced, looking for answers as to why Irene hasn’t written her back.

Irene handles the visit with class but warns Clare that what she’s doing – visiting her old Harlem neighbourhood and hanging out with Black people – might put her in harm’s way with John, especially as she has a daughter also passing as white. Clare doesn’t really heed the warning, supposing that although she doesn’t feel safe or particularly secure in her world, she’s not really safe anywhere – so why not, eh?

Meanwhile, Irene has a tendency to coddle her youngest son Junior – and her husband Brian (Holland) is on a different page regarding bringing up their two sons. He believes they should be prepared for the world by knowing how hateful it can be towards Black people, while Irene wants them to enjoy their childhood happiness for as long as possible. Brian’s detailed descriptions of past racist events do not sit well with her at all.

As Irene softens towards Clare, and the pair open up to one another, they start hanging out more and more. Clare admits to missing her Black heritage and is tired of repressing who she is, so Irene invites her to a jazz event. Clare’s free spirit and good looks prove a hit with almost everybody and it’s not long before Irene starts to suspect her friend and husband of having an affair. Even her sons seem happier to be around Clare than their own mother.

But, when Irene’s out and about with another friend, Felise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), she bumps into John Bellow again. Now in the proximity of a Black woman, it becomes obvious that Irene is not who he believed her to be – and we all know this is going to spell trouble. Just how much remains to be seen.

Will John be lovely and understanding towards his wife? What will become of the new/old friendship between these women? Well… it was never going to be a skip through the park, that’s for darn sure.

Thoughts

This film is very beautiful, with gorgeous costuming, stunning shots and framing – and really brilliant performances. Obviously, how could it not be all those things in these hands?

While I don’t know the source material, I do think it captures a sad sense of inevitability, as though Clare always knew her life would one day come crashing down – and how devastating to live that way? I feel sympathy for her even as she’s telling Irene in no uncertain terms that she’ll do anything to get what she wants.

I think there are times I wanted more from the central characters – more conversations about passing and why Clare made the choices she did. But then again, why wouldn’t she? It’s obvious, and a question pondered by one of Irene’s friends, a white male author. If you could pass, why wouldn’t you?

It seems like a no-win situation and not one I will ever have experience of – but somewhere I would have liked more discussion about light skin privilege. But that’s a tiny criticism in an otherwise very well crafted film and maybe I’m expecting somebody else to do the labour of explaining it to me, when I can just as easily do my own work.

I also felt there was some sexual tension bubbling beneath the surface of this friendship and I wanted that to develop, though I can’t be sure I wasn’t just projecting my wishes on the two leads.

That aside I liked this a lot, and the ending. Well it’s just ambiguous enough to keep you thinking about it after the credits have rolled.

My Rating: 4/5


What does my love think of Passing? Would she gracefully envelope it back into her life, or dob it in to its husband? Find out here.

One thought on “Passing, or: It’s tough for you to get by (yeah, yeah, yeah)

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