Passing poster


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What it’s about:

Based on the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, Passing follows two biracial women living very different lives in 1920s New York. The former classmates unexpectedly reunite to find themselves on opposite ends of the social spectrum. Irene (Tessa Thompson) has married a black doctor and lives with her family in Harlem, where she is very active within the black community. Clare (Ruth Negga) has married a bigoted white man and has been “passing” as white. When Clare inserts herself into Irene’s life, the two find their realities turned upside down.

Names you might know:

Tessa Thompson (Irene) is better known as Valkyrie in the Thor films, and has also starred in Dear White People, Creed, and Westworld. Ruth Negga (Clare) has also been in some Marvel fare (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Andre Holland, who you may recognize from Castle Rock, American Horror Story, and Selma, plays Irene’s husband, Brian. Alexander Skarsgard, who has been featured in Big Little Lies and True Blood, plays Clare’s racist husband.

Why it’s worth your time:

Despite being set nearly 100 years ago, the themes in Passing remain as relevant as ever. The effects of Jim Crow laws linger to this day, just a part of what makes Passing so powerful.

You also have to factor in director Rebecca Hall’s beautiful work behind the camera. Modern black and white films can sometimes come across as gimmicky, but that’s not the case with Passing. Every shot is carefully constructed to transport you back to the 1920s. The sepia colored tones feel as though you are looking at a faded postcard.

The lead actresses both deliver impressive performances. Thompson’s role is a bit trickier, as Irene must restrain herself around Clare. She’s never able to say what she really thinks, so Irene’s emotions are conveyed through small facial expressions—the lift of an eyebrow, the tightening of her lips. Thompson masters these gestures perfectly. Meanwhile, Negga captures Clare’s vivacious personality while also balancing her deep-seeded misery and longing for the life she once had.

Passing is a quiet film. There is very little violence, a deliberate choice and a departure from other films focused on race. The characters do mention lynchings and the threat of violence lurks over them, creating a rich tension, but we never actually see any. This only makes the film more powerful. It reminds us that the threat of racism is always there, invading the safety of one’s family and one’s well being. The film poses questions about race that we as a society are still trying to answer: Who decides who belongs in what space? What happens when someone tries to enter into a space that is not considered theirs? They are questions you’ll still be pondering long after the movie ends.

The takeaway:

A nuanced and beautiful look at the way race and the constructs of race shapes our lives, with wonderful performances by its two leading ladies.

Watch it with:

Your literary friends, especially if they’ve read the novel it is based on; your social activist friends; and fans of complex female protagonists.

Worth noting:

Director Rebecca Hall is mixed race herself, and her own grandfather passed as white for most of his life. She was interested in this idea especially due to the fact that while passing was quite common, it’s rarely been discussed in history classes, film, and literature.

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