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Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing.
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing.
Photo: Netflix






4/5 Stars


In 1920s New York City, a black woman finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend who's passing as white.


It is never easy to talk about race. There have been generations of conversations, conflict and pain, and the journey is still not over. The topic is not black and white, and the grey area is where the stores of real experiences live. Passing is a beautiful exploration of the story of two women trying to navigate their way through what it means to be black and to be white.

Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larson, Passing is told from the perspective of Irene (Tessa Thompson), a middle-class black woman who lives in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s. She is married to a doctor, has two sons, and does community work. She seems content with her life until she reconnects with Claire (Ruth Negga). Claire is a former classmate who is now passing for white, and she opens up a new perspective for Irene as the two begin to envy each other's lives.

The concept of passing for white is nothing new for South African audiences. Many people from coloured and black homes have stories of family members who "passed for white" during apartheid. This means that they had to cut off contact with their non-white family and pretend to be white to gain access to white spaces and more rights. This requires the person of colour to not only have a light complexion, but also to pass a "pencil test" that measures the texture of your hair, and other tests. It was a gruelling process, and many people still carry the scars of that experience. Most of which are internal.

Passing refers to the internal scars with Claire and Irene, who are both light-skinned black women. Irene chose to live as a black woman, while Claire chose to live as a white woman. And we see how both women come to terms with the decision they made while envying the life that the other leads.

We meet Irene as she is melting in the sweltering heat of New York City, and she decides to duck into a hotel for a cooldrink. The hotel restaurant is for whites only, and Irene keeps her head low and passes for white to get in. There she reconnects with Claire, who is visiting from Chicago and staying at the hotel. Claire lives as a white woman, so much so that her husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), does not know she is black.

After this initial meeting, Claire becomes enamoured with Irene's life in Harlem and visits often. She attends social events with Irene and quickly becomes the belle of the ball. This angers Irene, not only because she sees Claire as a traitor to a race, but also because she sees her as a competitor in the affections of her friends, her children and her husband, Brian (Andre Holland). But she also envies Claire's freedom, her glamour and her charisma. But Claire is not free; she is constantly living in fear that someone would discover her secret. John mentions that Claire is turning darker by the day, and she says she would not have another child because of the fear that the child would be dark.

Because we see everything through Irene's eyes and she is an unreliable narrator, we don't know how much of Claire is exaggerated because that is how Irene sees her. Midway through the film, the tone shifts to feel more like a thriller. We know something terrible is coming, but also, like Irene, we start to suspect that Claire is having an affair with Brian or trying to take over Irene's life. This might not be the case or Claire's intentions, but because this becomes an obsession of Irene's, we are taken on this ride with her.

But the film is so skilful that we as the audience begin to see the cracks in Irene's character, as she is not wholly a good character. She is classist as we see how she treats her darker-skinned housekeeper, Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins); she gets uncomfortable when her husband talks to her children about race relations in the country. And what Claire essentially does is show the cracks the perfect life facade Irene has created for herself.

This is perhaps Tessa Thompson's best performance as it brings across the complexities of the character of Irene. A lot of the performance is internal because so much of the story is in Irene's head, but Thompson's delivery, and the intricacies and emotion in her role, make it her career-best.

Ruth Negga is always a superb actor; even in short stints, she did on shows such as Marvel's Agents of SHIELD; she was mesmerising. This is why she is perfect in the role of Claire. She has that kind of Daisy Buchanan energy that makes it easy to believe she can charm an entire ballroom of people, and why she is the thorn in Irene's side.

The film is written and directed by acclaimed actor Rebecca Hall. It is her directorial debut, and the film is personal for her as her grandfather passed for white while living in the US. The film is well-made, and it is incredible to think that this is Hall's first film as director. While the pacing might feel slow at times, it still hits the mark and gives you the space to feel the characters' emotions.

The film is shot in black-and-white, and the monochrome aspect makes it look like a film from the 1950s, but just more pristine. It adds to the themes of black-and-white, and it looks beautiful. Cinematographer Eduard Grau does an amazing job of not making the film look like a piece of art that not only tells the story of these two women, but everyone who sees the world in black and white when most of life happens within the shades of grey.

Passing is a film that will sit with you after it is finished. It has intricate characters, who could have been fleshed out more, but you still feel as if you know them. The theme of Passing is not insular to just this time period, the film explores how we are all passing for something in our daily lives, and perhaps we are too hasty to judge others for their decisions.


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