Set in 1920s New York City, a black woman runs into her childhood friend in a reunion that sparks confusion as she discovers her light-skinned black friend is passing as white.
As a child of the 21st century, it is always a little odd to witness a black-and-white film. With the absence of familiar colours and with our remaining sense heightened, greyscale seems to invite a different kind of viewing. So, my initial response to Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing (2021) was a response to colour, or the lack thereof – an appropriate metaphor for a world increasingly aware of colour and its political, social and cultural implications.
Hall’s highly stylised film is adapted from Nella Larson’s 1929 novel of the same name. It follows the lives of two black American women in New York City in the 1920s, and their fortuitous meeting at an upmarket, whites-only hotel. Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) are both light-skinned, but, while Irene lives in Harlem as a black woman, Clare has taken to passing as white, even marrying an upper-class white man who is blatantly racist.
While the film is undeniably beautiful – Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times praised its enchanting “snow globe” aesthetic – it is this very beauty that sometimes alienates us from its leading women. After an argument with her husband, Irene basks laconically in bed, accompanied by the peppy jazz score of Devonte Hynes, her silhouette artistically blurred. It’s a beautifully choreographed scene; however, it facilitates a reality which, according to Cineaste’s Mary Corey, “feels imposed and inorganic”. The very lushness of Hall’s meticulous curation prevents any of these characters from truly existing – they are as much beholden to the setting as they are a part of it.
While some critics might see in this detachment a lack of accessibility, I see a profound loneliness and ineffability. Because Passing is not really about its two stylishly turmoiled protagonists, nor is it a question of black or white. Instead it is about the malleable, private spaces we each encounter in our own nuanced communions with race. Clare and Irene are our avatars in this space.
Hall has openly stated that Passing has been the vessel for her to dissect the challenges of her own racial identity. I would argue it goes a step further – forcing us to reckon with race, even while being beguiled by the passing snow.
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