I was first introduced to the concept of “passing” when I was in high school.
Our History class watched Queen, the 1992 miniseries by Alex Haley that continued his exploration of his family tree. Halle Berry starred as the titular character, a fair-skinned Black woman who found her way to Charleston, South Carolina, to “pass” as a white woman and live a better life than what would’ve been accessible to her otherwise. Growing up as a mid-toned black teenager in New York City in the 2000s, I don’t think I fully registered the implications of what “passing” meant, not when there were more pressing racial issues with which I could immediately identify. Still, that particular episode – where Victor Garber’s Digby brutalizes Queen when he discovers that she is Black – stuck with me.
I started Passing, the film written and directed by Rebecca Hall for Netflix, expecting what I had previously associated with the concept: a constantly looming threat of exposure, the inevitable violence when exposure occurs. Doing so would’ve been effortless for many filmmakers, as Hollywood has developed a cottage industry of exploiting Black pain for profit. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a different exploration of “passing” that resonates with our present discussions around race.
Rebecca Hall adapted Passing from the novel by Nella Larsen, about two black women living in 1920s New York. Irene (Tessa Thompson), a wife, mother, and active community member who plans dances to support the Negro League. One day, she encounters Clare (Ruth Negga), a childhood friend, in a fancy hotel. Both women are fair enough to pass as white women, but Irene does so sparingly to access stores to find gifts for her kids. On the other hand, Clare has chosen to live fully as a white woman, acquiring a rich husband (Alexander Skarsgård) and a prominent position. Clare doesn’t have someone she could be her true self with, and despite Irene’s initial hesitancy, the two reignite their friendship, and Clare becomes part of Irene’s comfortable bubble.
Things are never what they seem, and Clare’s appearance quickly exposes the cracks in Irene’s relatively perfect life: her troubled marriage fractured by opposing responses to racist violence and fading sexual interest; her contentious relationship with her dark-skinned housekeeper; and how she helps white people navigate Black spaces. Hall deftly explores the multitudes of the Black experience through her characters’ eyes, engaging in conversations as relevant now as they were in the 1920s. She doesn’t just examine how “passing” traumatizes, but also overt and subtle racism, violence, exoticism, cultural appropriation, political correctness, and colorism. Hall understands that the Black experience is not a monolith and her portrayal of this particular subsection is surprisingly multi-layered and lovely, lacking judgment and cliché.
Passing‘s loveliness extends to its direction and cinematography. There’s an inherent cynicism from some circles about the use of black-and-white cinematography and that its purpose is to garner awards attention. The intent of Passing’s monochromatic palette is deceptively clever. Not only does it align with the era, recalling old Hollywood films, but it also underscores the ease in which light-skinned Black people could pass as white. With cinematographer Eduard Grau’s brightened color scheme, you can see how Clare could successfully live as a white woman. Passing is more than just a deliberate lack of color. Hall handily captures her characters’ inner turmoil through an engaging mix of medium and close-up shots, creating a genuinely intimate atmosphere that directly challenges the risk of being Black in New York (or anywhere, for that matter).
Standing right in the center are Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as Irene and Clare. Both women are superb in their own right, given the differing complexities of their roles. Negga has the more expressive character by a mile, and she doesn’t waste the opportunity to eat up every single one of her frames. She is luminous on screen, no matter what emotion she’s conveying. You’ll want to bask in the energy she radiates. Thompson has the more challenging role, with much of Irene’s feelings kept closely guarded. Still, she is excellent at communicating them through slight shifts in her face and physicality. Seeing her in such a subdued role, given her powerful screen presence, is strange, but she is captivating.
As beautifully tuned as it is to the moment, Passing isn’t faultless. Hall can sometimes be too precious with her characters’ interiority, making it hard to understand their reactions and responses. Irene’s feelings about her husband (André Holland) and his budding friendship with Clare are unclear. There is enough on the screen to read a same-sex attraction on Irene’s part, but it is undercut by how she responds to him. She’s jealous, but of whom? It isn’t easy to tell. The film’s pace exacerbates the confusion, significantly slowing down as it approaches its climax. (I won’t spoil the ending, but I imagine it will be polarizing for some. Apart from feeling abrupt, it works for me.)
Much has changed since I first saw Queen in my History classroom. There is now language and knowledge that helps us communicate racial experiences that are more complex and nuanced than just saying the n-word aloud. As I’m sure many of my classmates did, I could’ve written Queen off as a dramatic story without any current real-world relevance, but I didn’t, for reasons y 15-year old self couldn’t quite parse out. I can easily imagine a kid watching Passing and finding refuge in the conversations and feelings it thoughtfully examines. For that reason, Passing is a rousing success.