November 13, 2021 – Passing is a Netflix movie about race that is uncommonly low-key, understated, delicate and tasteful. It doesn't hit you over the head with its message about race hatred — rather, it seduces you into the message with many hints.
The story, based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, revolves around the uncomfortable relationship between two women. Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson of “Creed”) is a political activist and the wife of a Harlem doctor. She is light-skinned and sometimes passes for white. While doing so one day, she meets an old friend, even lighter-skinned, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga of “Loving”). Clare has taken the whole thing about “Passing” for white, a lot farther.
Clare invites Irene up to her hotel room, announcing that she has married Brian (Alexander Skarsgård of “The Legend of Tarzan”) a wealthy white man from Chicago who is unaware that she is part black. Even more dangerous, Clare's husband is a hardened racist, and violence could ensue if he discovers his wife's racial makeup. Irene warns Clare that visiting her in Harlem could expose her secret, but Clare insists.
As Clare spends more and more time with Irene and Irene's husband, Brian (André Holland of “Moonlight”) the relationship between the two women becomes strained. There seems to be a sexual attraction between the two women that is problematic for both. Irene is also jealous of the time that Clare spends with Brian and Irene's two children, who all seem enchanted by Clare.
Irene becomes so troubled by the presence of Clare in her life that she tries to exclude Clare from all the gatherings where she has control over the guest list. But members of the families of Irene and Clare eventually meet often enough that Clare's secret is exposed, just as Irene feared.
The emotions of the two women are as complex as their relationship. These emotions color the events that occur in the movie's climax. Ambiguities abound in the film's final, dramatic scenes. While Clare's husband's actions are very straightforward, Clare's motives are less clear, and Irene's motives are quite ambiguous. Her feelings about the consequences of her own actions are equally ambiguous. There is plenty of room for speculation and interpretation.
Coloring the story are the ideas of white supremacy and racial purity, where people are classified as black even if they only have a small percentage of African DNA. These outdated ideas still hold sway, just look at all the race-related commotion resulting from the marriage of Meghan Markle, who is bi-racial, to Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, a member of the British Royal family.
Writer-director Rebecca Hall has fashioned a modern day take on this old story. It is filmed in black and white, which serves to further illustrate the racial aspects of the story in infinite shades of gray, white and black. The acting in this film, particularly by Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson and André Holland, is excellent. The musical score, consisting largely of repetitive, moody piano noodling, is by Devonté Hynes. I did not much care for that.
This is the sort of movie that should get some awards because it is shot in black and white, and it is also a well-made movie about a very serious subject, treated with intelligence and restraint. It should also appeal more to viewers who are more tolerant of ambiguity than I am. It's good, but I don't think it is going to make my top 10 list for the best films of 2021. This film rates a B.
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