This November, Netflix released Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut, Passing, exploring colorism and approaching race in a way that isn’t as prominently seen in film. The film is based on the critically acclaimed novel by Nella Larsen.
The film stars two actresses that could not feasibly “pass” for being white or another ethnicity, it pushes viewers to explore colorism not in the sense of surface level “color”, but regarding the variance of color: in undertones and the difference in them. This is an interesting artistic choice because the film was shot completely in black and white.
The film, which is set in the 1920s, tells the story of the careful, predictable Irene, portrayed by Tessa Thompson, and the wild and free Clare portrayed by Ruth Negga. The two women are reunited after 12 years without contact. When they meet again at the start of the film, they are both rich, but in different ways. Irene chose to live her life and stay within the Black community. She moved to Harlem and married Brian (Andre Holland), a successful doctor, and had two sons. Instead of working, she dedicates her free time to philanthropy and volunteered at the Negro League (similar to the NAACP).
In comparison Clare acquired her wealth by passing across racial lines and marrying a racist white international banker (Alexander Skarsgard). Her plan off “passing” has been so successful, she doesn’t dare risk having real content with black people in fear of putting her marriage in danger. Early in the film, she even expresses to Irene her relief that her daughter Margery didn’t turn out dark and expose her plan.
Though the film is a “Black film” with a predominantly Black cast, it doesn’t truly feel like a “Black film”. Though the concept of racial identity is an important theme that is important to the book and film, it deserves to be explored further and possibly through a different artistic lens and creative direction for film. Despite this, the performances of the cast were phenomenal and Passing is definitely worth the watch.