With ‘Passing,’ Netflix has found its newest Oscar contender
“I’m beginning to believe that no one is ever completely happy, free or safe.”
This line, spoken by the repressed and constantly terrified Irene in Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing speaks so much truth into a film that is quite literally bathing in it. On it’s surface it’s a straight-forward critique of race in America during the 1920s. Underneath that surface, we find a film that has no interest in rehashing the same arguments but IS very interested in getting past the superficiality and uncomfortable familiarity of this seemingly never-ending conflict to talk more about the human condition that binds us all together. Simply put, it’s Rebecca Hall’s first time in the director’s chair, and it’s one of the best films of the year.
Taking place in 1929 New York, the film centers on two childhood friends who have a chance reunion at a hotel tea garden. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is married to a doctor (Andre Holland) with two adolescent boys living quite comfortably in Harlem’s wealthier confines. Clare (Oscar nominee Ruth Nega) is married to affluent businessman John (Alexander Skarsgard) and lives about as luxuriously as you can imagine. They live in Chicago but are in New York on business. The catch, of course, is that Clare is African American but light-skinned enough to pass for white, which her highly prejudiced husband believes her to be. They also have a child off in boarding school, which adds an incredible layer of complexity to what Clare is willing to brush off when it comes to John’s viciously casual racism.
While the novel the film is based on by Nella Larson is a work of fiction, the practice of “passing” is very real. It was not uncommon in any sense for light-skinned African Americans to “pass” as white in society for the obvious reasons you can think of. It is a wholly tragic idea to be sure, but in Hall’s careful hands the film never lets this be yet another story of the poor “mulatto” dealing with deception and self-loathing. The film definitely deals with this reality but it’s really more of a set-up to explore much more interesting and universal themes. This also reclaims the idea of “passing” from a purely racial act to one of human nature.
“We’re all passing for something or another, aren’t we?” Irene says to her sly friend Hugh (the incredible Bill Camp). Irene is a fascinating character study and Tessa Thompson plays her with a quiet and reserved ferocity that always makes us think she’s a second from exploding. The early parts of the film follow Irene as she “passes” on the other side of town trying to find a book for her son. She’s so careful in everything she does that it gives us an immediate sense of paranoia and danger. As if at any second she’s going to be set upon. Right away we get the absolute sense of how above all, Irene values safety in that top quote triad of desires.
It also informs the chief conflict with her husband Brian, a clearly overworked doctor that finds it unacceptable to shield their young boys from the horrors of the real world. Irene is in no way ignorant of the terrors going on, but in their Harlem home she has created a sanctuary for her children that she is determined to keep intact. A task she is mostly succeeding at, even to her own detriment (more on that in a second). Succeeding at, that is, until Clare comes calling one day after weeks of Irene not answering her letters.
Clare is, on the surface, a more fascinating character to try to dissect. She simply must harbor an incredible amount of self-loathing to deal with the world of her husband. She has a naturally charming naïveté that immediately makes us like and yet distrust her. Nega to her credit never lets Clare’s true emotions through save for one brief moment of self-reflection on the street in the middle of the film. It is this inconsistency that makes her and Irene’s relationship so realistic.
Once Clare has gotten past Irene’s apprehension, she further ingratiates herself into her life and social circle. For Clare’s part, we assume a general desire to reconnect with the heritage she has willingly suppressed for years. Once among the Harlem contingent, Clare comes to life in a way we only see little glimpses of at the start. And as the people start to take to her, even more than Irene, the true juxtaposition of these characters begins to become clear.
Both of these women are able to “pass.” Irene does but usually only for necessity. Conversely Clare “passes” for convenience and a better life. One of those inherently seems more noble than the other but ultimately they’re both about survival. Clare has so expertly repressed her black side that even a derogatory and incredibly ironic nickname from her husband doesn’t phase her. More to the point she actually goads him to tell Irene the meaning of it in their first encounter. While we can easily find that reprehensible what would the alternative life for Clare look like if she didn’t act this way?
It’s this moral and ethical complexity that truly elevates the film to top contender status. Sure race plays a big part in the setup of the film but it’s ultimately more about very universal truths that transcend race, gender, geography and anything else. Can a place with a sordid and deep-rooted past even be redeemed? When do you let your children know about how hard and horrible the world can be? Is it better to run to perceived safety or try to change where you are for the better? What do you do if you seemingly have a good life but continue to not be happy with what you have? How far do you go when jealousy and injustice flood your senses? It seems strange to say but the film makes time for all of these hard questions and leaves us with much to ponder.
You’ll notice that I haven’t spent much time in this review talking about the plot? That’s not an accident. The film has a great plot and an ending that is sure to leave many people wondering what exactly did happen. But more than anything this is a film experience where I concentrated more on how I felt while watching it. And the truth is the film makes you wonder what you would do in these circumstances and makes you ponder whether the act of “passing” is truly as black and white as you think.
All-in-all this is a fantastic freshman effort from Hall, an actress that has more than made her mark in front of the camera and now is sure to make bigger marks behind it. Tessa Thompson said of the novel, “It’s a piece of work that I think asks far more questions than it ever answers.” This is very true, and hence allows us to insert our own interpretations of the events. That a film can be that ambiguous and that jarring at the same time is a hard accomplishment and one the Academy should remember come awards season.
Passing is available to stream NOW on Netflix.