MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
As the film Passing begins, a white screen slowly comes into focus, accompanied by a strange soundscape that becomes less muddy as details of city life emerge. Eventually we follow a woman into an upscale café. Nothing much is said, but we notice the woman closely checking her makeup. We will learn that her name is Irene (Thompson) and she is enjoying a day on the town as a black woman passing for white. A white woman at a nearby table notices Irene and strikes up a conversation. In time, we learn that this other woman’s name is Clare (Negga) and that she is a childhood friend of Irene’s. For Clare, “passing” is not an afternoon diversion, but a full-time vocation; her light skin tone has allowed her to enter into white society with all of its privileges. The cost is a bargain with the devil, for she must deny herself her true racial identity. Clare very much wants to rekindle her friendship with Irene when she moves to New York from Chicago, but when her husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) makes his way to the table and starts making racial slurs, Irene decides that she need not pursue the reunion any longer.
We then follow Irene home to her comfortable apartment in 1929’s Harlem. She is living a different kind of upscale life with her husband (André Holland) and two children. She is part of the literary renaissance and regularly socializes with the famous writers, poets, and musicians who live and work nearby. As Harlem is visited by white Americans desiring to experience black culture, it is only a matter of time before Clare makes her way to Harlem and confronts Irene for ignoring her letters of inquiry. Things get complicated.
Passing is based on a classic 1929 novella by Nella Larsen, a writer of Afro-Caribbean and Scandinavian lineage. Actor Rebecca Hall chose to adapt Larsen’s book as her first directorial project after learning of her own mixed-race background. The film not only recreates 1929 New York City through art direction and costumes, but faithfully reproduces the mannered dialogue of its era, of outsiders desperately wanting to fit in with a culture that would deny them their aspirations.
This is a film that will reward patient viewing, but it will require your patience. It is a slow, quiet movie that is not rushing to explain things to you. There are no long expositional monologues. There is very little plot. (Although the running time is just a tad over 90 minutes, this story could have been told in a leisurely-paced hour.) The black and white cinematography by Edward Grau is stunning, although the mildly dissonant jazzy musical piano score by Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange) quickly got on my nerves.
All disclaimers aside, Passing is a work of art that will leave you with much to talk about and consider.
(I would also like to recommend The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, a contemporary novel about the same theme.)
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: A literary time capsule that is remarkably still relevant for its explorations into racial identity, privilege, and friendship.
One pitchfork: Racial slurs and offscreen acts of violence.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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