Passing (2021)

Director: Rebecca Hall
Writer: Rebecca Hall
Based on: Nella Larsen‘s novel
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alexander Skarsgård
Seen on: 24.11.2021

Content Note: (critical treatment of) racism

Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) used to be close friends in school, but haven’t seen each other in years. When they run into each other, they discover that their loves have taken very different paths. While Irene married a Black man (André Holland) and is involved in charity projects to help the Black population, Clare married a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) and her entire social circle, including him, thinks she’s white herself. Irene is taken aback and a little afraid that Clare will be discovered through her, while Clare is desperate to reconnect with the Black community she lost. One thing is for sure, though:they are both inexorably drawn to each other.

Passing is an excellently crafted and above all beautifully acted film that manages to get the most out of its story, although I can’t quite forgive its ending.

The film poster showing Irene (Tessa Thompson) in front of a black background and Clare (Ruth Negga) in front of a white background. Both have their backs turned to each other.

Negga and Thompson are undeniable forces in this film, expressing so much in the way they interact with each other, in the way they say certain lines – it’s not so much the lines themselves that do it than the delivery, though the dialogue really isn’t bad. Very quickly we get a very intense impression of the relationship Irene and Clare have with each other, and it’s a complicated one, and very definitely a queer one.

It would be complicated, too, if race wasn’t an issue, but of course, it always is. The ways Irene and Clare respectively navigate their worlds highlight how much it affects both of them, and the people around them. There are questions of community, identity and, of course, power to consider within the film – but also between the audience and the film. As a white woman watching it, I felt like I was privy to an inter-community discussion between Black people.

Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson) walking along the street.

At the beginning of the film, the question briefly arises whether Negga nad Thompson could actually pass as white. But only for a second – it’s so easy to believe that people see what they want to see. And a Black woman in a white only space is impossible, so any woman in a white space will be seen as white. I don’t know if Hall chose to have the film shot in black and white to escape this question in part, but it felt an unnecessary precaution. This choice certainly felt a little on the nose for me in general – I think I would have preferred the movie to be in color (although it looks very nice).

Really, my biggest issue was the ending that felt way too depressing and dark for me, especially since it has Irene turning against Clare. It seems to imply not only that Clare doesn’t have a place anywhere anymore, but also that she doesn’t deserve it. That judgment is way too harsh for my taste. Plus, I like it when women come together in solidarity, instead of tearing each other down.

Nevertheless, Hall gifted us with an incredible and insightful debut that should be seen.

Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson) sitting on the steps in front of Irene's house.

Summarizing: very good.

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