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Sundance 2021: 'Passing' is a Reminder of How Far We’ve Come and How Much Work We Still Need

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

When my good friend and co-Buffed-Film-Buff Lydia Smith asked me to join her this year for a couple showing at the digital Sundance Film Festival this year, I truly didn’t know what to expect. To keep my expectations low, I expected a couple of independent movies trying to make it big while also profoundly using symbolism and niche filmmaking techniques-movies that would have some artistic merit, but tell fairly amateur stories. However, I was absolutely blown away this year by the Rebecca Hall-directed film, Passing, starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. Tessa Thompson stars as the poignant Irene Redfield, an African-American woman living in early 1900s Harlem, who reunites with her childhood mixed-race friend, Clare Kendry(played by a fantastic Ruth Negga). Irene, who has accepted her African heritage and culture, marries Brian, played by a passionate Andre Holland. However, Clare, married to John (Alexander Skarsgard), a blatantly racist white upper-class man, is pretending to be white, hence the title Passing.

Over the course of the film we see these two women become increasingly obsessed with each others’ lives, as Clare, to get away from her husband and exist in her true culture, visits Irene’s house incredibly often, to the point where Irene suspects that Clare and her husband are having an affair. The ending is a haunting culmination of all these conflicts, both social and interpersonal, and hard to forget about after you see it.

Passing is actually adapted from a 1929 novel of the same name written by Nella Larson, a biracial woman living in the 1920s, so we can assume that most of the social conflict that arises in this film she had faced herself. She did gain recognition for the novel once it was published, but it’s ambiguous whether it was because Larson herself passed as white or because her writing was equally as good despite her race/color of skin. This dichotomy between black and white I think also explains why Hall chose for this movie to be in black and white.

Most people living in Harlem at the time of the film see people as either black or white, and with that comes implications about social class and personality based on the color of their skin. Putting the movie in black and white, it’s even harder for the audience to distinguish between the color of the characters’ skin, which is a fantastic stylistic and thematic choice; in the end, all of these characters are just human beings trying to live their lives, regardless of social class or skin color. Yet, this stylistic choice could also be seen as the oblivious common white man in the 1920s seeing the world as strictly BLACK or WHITE. This also alludes to the racist distinguishments made against that dichotomy; that one is supposedly inherently good while the other is inherently evil; that one is supposedly pure and angelic while the other is inherently predatorial(which comes up in the movie when Holland’s character brings up the lynchings occurring at this time, explained by racist whites as a defense against black men for ‘protecting’ white women).

This movie is enlightening not only in the way the American people used to view race, but how they currently. The lynchings that we see Holland’s character discuss with his kids morphs into the talk that black families go through today, with black parents explaining to their children of the dangers they face due to discrimination and police brutality. The concept of passing has not changed, though the circumstances certainly have. Passing for white today could potentially save a black person’s life if they were ever pulled over by a cop. This was my favorite film that I saw at the festival, and I’m excited to see it once again when it gets released on Netflix.



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