I’m sure many of you are wondering, “What exactly is passing?” It’s the ability of a person to be seen as a member of another identity or group. Most know it as being racially ambiguous. Passing gives us a deep look into the dangers and possible perks of passing as a white woman in 1920’s New York City.
Passing opens up with our main protagonist, Irene, played by Tessa Thompson, shopping in a store. Upon further examination, I realized that there are only white people in the shop. As she calmly scans the store, there’s no tension between her and the surrounding patrons.
There is no doubt in my mind that Rene, as some call her, is deliberately passing. I think we see her self-consciousness in this scene too. Possibly this is her first encounter with people thinking she is white.
The film centers around Rene and her old friend Clare Bellew, played by Ruth Negga, who has been passing as a white woman. She seems to share some characteristics with The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan. She’s seen as a beautiful alluring woman, yet pretends to be something she isn’t. She’s a mother, but she says she thinks it’s one of the worst things in the world. She’s black but puts on a metaphorical mask hiding who she is.
This raises the question: is passing something to be ashamed of or is it just a dangerous way to survive? During her first encounter with Clare’s husband John Bellew, Rene asks him how he feels about black people, and he replies “I hate them.” He then goes on to explain how Clare hates them even more than he does and avoids them in most settings.
This scene shows a great deal about Negga’s character. To intentionally portray a hatred for your own kind, I believe, would eventually lead to real malice towards your own.
I wish things like that were more discussed between Rene and Clare. Oftentimes (in real life) whenever someone commits to passing, that means leaving behind family members and any history that you have. There is one instance when Clare explains how she began passing, but it isn’t deeper than the surface. We don’t see any type of hesitation or regret in her face or speech, but this could be done on purpose.
Truth be told, sometimes passing is unintentional. No person walks into a room or establishment yelling their race or ethnicity to every single person. This goes for people that obviously belong to one race, and those that are racially ambiguous. Typically people make their own assumptions and keep them until they’re forced to change.
If you’re expecting a highly climactic piece of work, then look elsewhere. The peak of this film doesn’t occur until the very end. This slow burn, however, allowed for wonderful development of Thompson’s character.
But I question whether Rene was fully satisfied living as a black woman. A discussion with her husband before bed ends with him asking her “Who’s satisfied with being anything?” and she simply and quietly replies, “I am. I’m Satisfied.”
This contradicts some of her previous actions, however. Based on the opening scene in the store amongst the white people, or her walking into the restaurant without hesitation, she too sees the benefit of passing. It’s only when she becomes entangled with Clare that we see her become agitated about it.
While Clare is the more insecure of the two and less satisfied, she doesn’t seem open to Rene’s concerns. Regardless of Rene’s urging her to reconsider her choice, given the potential risk to her and her daughter were they found out, Clare tells Rene, “All things considered, I think it’s entirely worth the price.”
Indeed, passing may just have been a form of survival during its most prevalent time. Truth be told, it isn’t necessarily something that should be shamed. The situation of others can’t be understood 100% from the outside looking in. For some, passing could have been a much more viable option than staying in their current or previous predicament.
The setting in which Passing takes place was filled with racial tension. African Americans were seen as less than, and treated as such in many if not all social settings. Passing allowed some African Americans the benefit of being able to leave those pieces of oppression behind. Whether it was the right or wrong choice, is controversial.
This film couldn’t have come at a better time. There has been much about the topic of race or identity within social media, cinema, and the everyday institution of society. It’s nice to see a film target those topics and make a piece of art that starts those conversations.
Overall I would rate Passing a 4.2 out of 5.
Passing is available for streaming on Netflix.