The movie opens with a scene so tense it feels like a horror movie. The experience was certainly like that for a Black woman in Chicago in the 1930s, going into a whites-only hotel. A Black woman “passing” as white was risking her own life. The act of passing is when a light-skinned Black person leads everyone to believe they are white. This was done for a myriad of reasons during that time in history, most of which were about survival and/or escape from poverty.
That seems to be the case when we meet our characters Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson) in the film Passing, based on the novel by Nella Larsen. The film, like the book, is all about taking the audience inside of the complex act while commenting on the racial experience in America. Clare and Irene are both pale, light-skinned black women. They both grew up with the stigma and privilege of their proximity to whiteness. However, as adults, each chose a life path that they are now sort of reflecting upon, sometimes with judgment, at other times, with some serious longing.
A Black and White Upper Class Explored
Both women marry into the upper class and have children. Clare marries a white businessman named John, played by Alexander Skarsgard, and Irene a Black doctor named Brian played by Andre Holland. Both have two boys and live well within their communities. Passing indeed offers a comparison of the two upper-class experiences, acknowledging that even a Black doctor and his wife are still discriminated against like the rest of their community members. As it does, this experience creates activism, and Irene uses their respectability and Black privilege to raise money and organize for civil rights causes.
Meanwhile, Clare is passing as a white woman married to a very rich and racist businessman. She acts like the rest but admits to fearing for her life every day. Her position buys her unlimited reign over any space she enters. However, a fear of being caught holds her back from giving too much interest to anything Black. She is always dodging people who know her from the Black community and family. Her husband has made it clear that he believes that Black people should not exist. Clare knows that finding out that his children and wife were black would prove fatal.
Remember when I said that the film opened like a horror film. That kind of tension is what Clare lives all the time. She appears happy-go-lucky, but in reality, the woman is living on a constant tightrope. That’s why when we see Clare in Irene’s world, she seems even more carefree and comfortable. Irene has the freedom to be herself and raise her boys with knowledge of who they are. Meanwhile, Clare’s kids are most certainly using the n-word with the hard -er on the daily. And, she must go along with it to avoid scrutiny.
Irene, however, begins to think of what it would be like to have the unrestricted life of a white woman.
She starts passing in quick trips. Despite Clare’s stories, Irene seems to envy the woman. Irene thus grows more and more rigid, and Clare opens up. We get too close to a Single White Female situation before the plot twists and turns all parties out into the same space to deal with a tragedy. The penultimate choices made here are what make Passing such a good watch. The complexities of race and society at the time make everyone unpredictable as no one wants to be associated with the other. Doing so would be a death sentence—even for the white man.
The Horror Film-Like Tension Places Us in the Character’s Shoes
When Irene meets Clare’s husband, she finds that he is rich–and incredibly racist. The suspense in the film builds every time Irene or Clare leaves Black spaces for the White spaces trying to pass as white. The scenes are sometimes shot like they are from the Outlook at the Shining, just before the elevator opens and the halls fill with blood. IT feels like something horrible is about to happen, but they manage to make it through It’s akin to the chill a horror movie scene serves as the character tries to move into a space where the killer is still hidden, but we know he’s out there and still hunting.
Clare moves through these spaces under the thin belief that she can’t be “found out”. It’s a belief that you can tell she worries about herself! Meanwhile, visiting Irene gives Clare a chance to experience life as a black woman. In these scenes, Irene seems to share the audience’s fear. If anyone notices a white woman in these spaces, the word will spread and soon Clare’s husband will be around. If anything happens to Clare, Irene and her people will be in serious danger.
Despite the risk, Clare expands her horizons while encouraging Irene to go out more, to pass. Clare does not always turn off her privilege and is sometimes treating the Black maids for example as if they were cleaning a white woman’s home. Irene wants her confidence, but she also wants her woman of the house the risk of her telling folx. In one scene, Clare asks the Black cleaning woman in Irene’s house about coming to her place. Then “white” woman makes a remark about finding “good help” that is definitely from outside the neighborhood. But Clare is quickly forgiven and soon, Irene slowly sees her husband’s two kids being drawn to Irene as she is to the point where it feels like she is being replaced.
Throughout the film, there is the looming fear of Clare’s two worlds colliding. The anxiety of that tension comes to a shocking crescendo in a scene that will pull audiences to the edge of their seats. In addition to the intriguing storyline. Passing also has so many lessons on the history of women, especially Black women. Colorism creates another layer to an already tenuous struggle within this film. We don’t just see it from our seats in the audience, we also feel it. That tension does attempt to threaten and upset the narrative, in many places, but it’s not something you can’t handle.
You can see Passing in theaters and on Netflix on November 10.
Rating 4 of 5 stars