Television Review: “Passing” — The Tragedy of Race and Space

By Sarah Osman

After nearly a century, the fierce psychological nuance of Passing remains as relevant as ever.

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in a scene from Passing.

Shooting a film in black and white nowadays has been deemed by critics to be either a gimmick or the height of pretension. In some cases, like The Artist, the strategy can be a little of both. So it is reasonable to be suspicious  of Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, Passing (currently screening on Netflix), which was shot in black and white and is being presented in a boxed format in 4:3 aspect ratio. But the film easily escapes both charges. Passing is deep-down gorgeous — it’s by far one of the most beautiful films of the year. And the sepia-colored tones resonate with the film’s ’20s setting, taking us back to a time when one “passed” to escape the trap of institutionalized discrimination.

Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, Passing tells the story of the complex relationship between childhood friends Irene “Renie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga). The film initially introduces us to Irene, a mixed-race woman who lives a fairly upscale life with her doctor husband and two sons in Harlem. When Irene ventures to the white Upper East Side to do some shopping, she veils her face in order to downplay her appearance. She even picks up a “pickaninny” doll and hands it to a white woman so as to not draw attention to herself. When she ventures to a high-end hotel rooftop for tea, Irene is alarmed by the gaze of a white woman sitting in front of her — until she realizes that the woman is actually her childhood friend Clare, who is also biracial and is now passing as white.

Thompson plays Irene with the right amount of bedeviled restraint. The actress perfectly captures Irene’s shock at seeing her childhood friend and evokes the proper disgust at Clare’s racist husband, John (played by Alexander Skarsgård with well-proportioned sleaze and terror). Irene is rarely able to admit what she thinks to Clare. Her response is to attempt to pull herself away from Clare’s bizarre life. Clare has had a daughter with John and was relieved to see that her daughter is whiter than she is.

Against Irene’s wishes, Clare shows up at her doorstep and promptly inserts herself  into her friend’s home. She has clearly struggled with her secret for years and desperately yearns to be who she truly is. Negga balances Clare’s bubbly personality — she’s dubbed “the princess” by a white friend of Irene’s — with her deep-rooted misery. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, but Negga does it masterfully.

Still, while Negga has the juicier role, Thompson is the true powerhouse. As the film goes on, Irene’s perfect demeanor begins to slowly unravel. She becomes obsessed with safety — not just Clare’s, but her own son’s. But her answer to rising levels of anxiety is  to implode rather than explode. There are no loud outbursts or screaming fights. She tries to keep herself and her family together by ignoring the threats around her.

The film focuses on race, but there is very little violence and that is refreshing. Hall doesn’t rely on the tired device of bringing in acts of gratuitous violence. Lynchings are described, but we never see one. Passing concentrates on the everyday struggles of race to exist in different spaces. Like the novel, the film probes difficult questions: Who decides who belongs in what space? Who are the gatekeepers? And what happens when one tries to game this system? Hall, like Larsen, is also of mixed-race heritage, and one senses her strong emotional commitment to the material. (She discovered that her Black grandfather managed to pass for white for most of his life.)  As historians have pointed out, passing was once quite common, though it has rarely been discussed, beyond exploitation of the sensational variety. After nearly a century, the psychological nuance of Passing remains as relevant as ever.

Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for The Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman

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