Review: 'Passing' Examines Race, Privilege, and Authenticity

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday October 27, 2021

'Passing'  (Source:Netflix)

Rebecca Hall's film adaptation of the 1929 novel "Passing," by Nella Larsen, has the pace and focus of a stage play. Slyly, and only by degrees, does the movie reveal the entirety of its scope and the breadth of its concerns, interrogating issues of race, privilege, and authenticity, while also exploring the nature and uses of erotic social capital.

Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a resident of Harlem, finds it "convenient" to pass as a white woman in the more upscale parts of town form time to time — when, for instance, she's searching for a child's birthday gift, or need to refresh herself with tea at a fancy hotel.

It's during just such a break in a day of shopping that Irene realizes the white couple sitting at a nearby table aren't who she thought them to be at first, and more than that, one of them is already known to her — a childhood friend named Clare (Ruth Negga). When Clare's husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), takes his leave, the two women renew their acquaintance, heading up to Clare's room to enjoy tea and cake in private as they discuss the advantages and drawbacks of passing for white. Irene can't imagine why anyone would want to live full-time in such a pretense, but Clare assures her that, although she misses her old friends and her old neighborhood, "all things considered, I think it's entirely worth the price."

How steep that price is becomes much clearer when John returns from his errand, joins the women in the room, and unleashes a torrent of absolutely horrifying racist commentary, all while Clare smiles sweetly. Clearly, John has no idea that his wife — whom he clearly adores —†belongs to a demographic he flatly asserts he hates.

Later on, at home, Irene tells her husband, Brian (André Holland), a physician, about the experience. He's much less fazed than Clare, but that's a result of his being much more willing to confront the brutal realities of the racist society in which they live. Still, as time passes, Clare begins to miss her old life and the society of her old friend more and more; Irene, at first hardened against her, eventually softens, and their friendship resumes, complete with a whiff of sexual attraction.

It's not hard to see how Irene might be drawn to the beautiful, artfully self-pitying Clare, especially given the fault lines in her marriage to John (who, unhelpfully, holds the opinion that sex is "a joke"). But Clare's ravishing sexual charisma brings John, too, into her orbit; even Irene's two young sons seem entranced by the new fixture in their lives. Clare comes to life, escaping from what she laments as her "pale life" of passing, but at the same time Irene begins to feel invisible, and not just in her own home; when Irene and Brian become a means for Clare to enter their ready-made social circle, Clare quickly becomes the belle of all the balls.

Naturally, jealousy and resentment start to boil up in Irene, but at the same time she's accepting of the situation. As played by Thompson, Irene is smart, watchful, and discerning. She might not want to face the violence that white people inflict on African-Americans, insisting that Brian refrain from sharing details about lynchings and other murderously racist events taking place around the country, but that impulse to keep ugliness out of her home doesn't mean Irene isn't clued into what's happening in the world outside... and within her own home, as well.

Hall brings a delicate and yet precise touch to this, her directorial feature debut. The choice to film the movie in black and white seems too one the nose, at first, but, as the story unfolds, that affectation becomes a powerful took in Hall's storytelling arsenal.

"Passing" plays in limited theatrical release starting Oct. 17 before streaming at Netflix starting Nov. 10.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.