dir: Rebecca Hall
I’ve seen a few films, even just this week, made recently but in black and white for stylistic reasons, mostly. I think this one is in black and white for entirely different reasons.
Set in Harlem in the 1920s, this flick centers itself less around the idea of people of African-American backgrounds passing for “white” in a climate still hostile to black people (unlike the enlightened era we all live in 100 years later), and more around the complex friendship between two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga).
The film is based on a novel by Nella Larsen, written in the 20s, and though I don’t think it’s autobiographical per se, the author herself had a complicated heritage, and these notions of passing for white, or, failing that, passing for being “European” might have been a big deal in her life too.
The two women knew each other at school, but Clare’s father’s death saw her move away twelve years ago. When they reconnect, it is by chance, at a hotel restaurant. Irene is not trying to pass for white in this initial sequence; it seems more like she just doesn’t want shopkeepers and doormen to notice that she’s black. Her cloche hat is pulled down far enough, and is current fashion, so if people assume, she doesn’t correct them.
Clare, on the other hand, is blonde, and looks like a silent era movie star. When Irene finally recognises her, and is eventually introduced to her husband (Alexander Skarsgård), she realises her childhood friend is passing for white, and is somewhat surprised.
Even more surprising is the crap the husband says, including his nickname for his wife, and the ‘fact’ that she hates African-Americans even more than he does.
Irene doesn’t mention the obvious stuff that we realise: that both the women he’s talking to are black. She may still have some wariness towards Clare, but she doesn’t want to blow her cover.
When Irene returns to “her” world of the suburb of Harlem, she feels safe in her “element”, and no longer has to camouflage as someone other than “black”. She has a nice house, a husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two young boys, whom she wants to protect from the harshness of the world they live in. This America, decades after the Civil War, is still not a safe place generally for their people. Lynchings happen and get reported all the time, more with glee in the papers rather than sorrow. I don’t know the specific year this film is set in the 1920s, but the Tulsa Massacre happened in 1923, so that would have been recent history.
And New York, far from being the safe, multicultural metropolis of the imagination, is still a place of open tensions.
And yet. Harlem is having its renaissance, a time of flourishing, in the arts, theatre, music, literature. The rising black middle class of professionals and property owners in parallel with “white” society would throw these many differences and inequalities into stark relief. A time with the freedom to define themselves, and the opportunities, in many ways imitating the dominant milieu, and in others defining it anew.
Irene is part of that flourishing, volunteering with the Negro Welfare League, taking part in what seems like a very bourgeois society of nightclubs and bridge parties and society bashes. It’s not one that Clare has, until recently, been able to be a part of, for obvious reasons, at least this version of it.
Through her persistence, though, Clare weasels her way into it through Irene. That’s not how the film really portrays it, but that’s how we eventually come to see it from Irene’s perspective. Though she is dazzled by the charismatic Clare, right from the start she is incredibly wary, and that wariness transforms over time into despair and resentment.
But why, we may ask ourselves? Clare is nothing but grateful, gracious and kind whenever she hangs out with other African-American socialites or Irene’s family. She is generally always on her “best behavior”, whatever that means. And yet Irene’s resentment grows.
Irene is, after all, prim and proper at all times. She is courteous and chooses her words ever so carefully in every circumstance. So why does Clare trouble her so?
The simplest explanation you could glean is fear. She knows people are drawn to Clare because she’s charismatic and charming and all that bullshit, and she fears her own husband is drawn to her, and maybe it’s an African-American version of “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene Jo-Leeene / please don’t take him just because you can”. We don’t really get any evidence for that, beyond seeing that clearly Irene is being driven bonkers by imagined jealousy.
But maybe there’s more to it than that. Does she resent Clare for passing for white, for the obvious benefits that come with it in a white supremacist country? On a core, basic level, is she angered by the fact that Clare seems to be able to dip in and out of African-American society without suffering any consequences? Does she resent her for having it all?
It's hard to say. There’s a brief moment where she reaches out to hold Clare’s hand, at a dance or fundraiser or some such, and, sure, we can see that maybe it’s her wanting to express affection towards Clare, but is there perhaps something more? Does she desire Clare in a way that I guess you couldn’t write about at the time, but can imply easily in films made in 2021 without any danger?
Or is it that her desire is something equally unattainable, being, that she, on some level, wishes she could be Clare, not just to be desirable and entrancing, but to be able to sneak away from “being” black, and cast off the burden of race, and be away or above it all?
The way the flick rolls out raises a whole bunch of questions in your mind, and it answers none of them. Irene, clearly unhappy the longer the story rolls along, rarely expresses herself in anything other than the passive-aggressive ways expected in polite society, because she herself has a persona she feels she has to maintain at all times. It’s a character or a costume as much as Clare’s is.
I have a lot of moments in the film that I loved, but one of my favourites is where the two women are sitting on the steps of Irene’s house, and Clare says she always admired Irene’s moral upstandingness and dependability (which does sound like she’s throwing shade or implying that Irene is boring, but I think it’s intended as a compliment), and Irene says she always admired Clare’s energy. Even though it feels like they’re speaking openly, but there is still so much being unsaid, and, in order to emphasise that and defuse it at the same time, the camera cuts to an image of afternoon sun glowing through the treetops that reach over the street. It’s one of those New York streets.
In terms of complexity, well, there are so many other aspects of the film that exemplify the crafty way it’s all put together. In the early going, much was made of Clare’s not even tolerating ‘help’ at her wealthy husband’s house that is African-American – her husband takes that as emblematic of Clare’s hatred for black people, but Clare wisely knows it would be harder to pass for “white” surrounded by servants who intuit the truth. And yet Irene’s treatment of her own maid, being Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins), is appalling. There’s no sense of kinship or common purpose there: she speaks to Zu the way one could imagine some high society Karen of yesteryear would and think nothing of it. The rights she feels others have fought for and won, and she has contributed to, only barely apply to the more impoverished African-Americans still working as servants.
In one scene where Clare is sunbathing and enjoying her time with Zu in the backyard, Irene hurriedly puts a blanket over Clare’s legs, lest they darken in the sun. Just wrap your head around that concept.
There’s also a fascinating “token” white character, Hugh Wentworth, who is somehow welcome in their world, despite being very white and looking like old money. He and his wife are wealthy enough to theoretically weather what could be the opprobrium of white high society for socialising with African-Americans, or they just don’t care. He is something of an inscrutable character. The easiest way to write him off is to accuse him of slumming, or that there is some transgressive thrill in finding more enjoyment amongst people “his” society consider inferior, but he seems to think are just fine. He is dismissive of Clare, perhaps finding her ruse of passing not only as white but between the two worlds as dishonest, or unnecessary.
But then in conversation, Irene points out to him that there’s no reason why he would have ever thought about the necessity of passing as anyone else, being rich and white, and a man, after all. He agrees, not enthusiastically, but he agrees all the same.
He is curious. That there would have been allies at the time is no stretch, but I kept waiting for the penny to drop, for him to reveal some uncomfortable approach or idea that would indicate the limits of his “allyship”, so to speak, but that other shoe never dropped.
Maybe it’s less complicated than that. Maybe he just enjoyed watching his wife dance with other men, not being much of a dancer himself, by his own admission. His wife looked pretty happy, though.
The film ends in tragedy, one I guess at the time that would have been seen as inevitable, but it hurts, all the same. Irene’s resentment builds and builds, and New York society in the 1920s still had its limits, and yet there is something still so shocking and so ambiguous about what happens at the end. If only Irene could have seen Clare as a beloved sister, instead of a poisonous threat. If only Alexander Skarsgård could play a character in something that wasn’t racist and that didn’t involve people falling down steps or through windows. There are a lot of things I wish could have gone differently, but none of that is in any way a criticism of any of the choices the screenplay, the director or the actors make, because this is a superbly put-together film.
Ruth Negga is luminous as Clare, projecting an energy and a light that doesn’t completely cover the deep sadness underlying the character. Tessa Thompson, equally phenomenal in her more difficult role, has to get across a bunch of motivations and emotions, but remain believable and ambivalent about almost everything all of the time, and it must have been exhausting for her, but she nails it completely. My favourite moment of hers is where she’s just smashed an antique teapot, and when Hugh chivalrously tries to take the blame to cover her embarrassment, she launches into the politest and quietest hysterical accounting both of the teapot’s origins and her deep dislike of it because of its Confederate origins, all trying to cover the fact that she thinks Clare is stealing her husband from her.
One could ask why the two leads of a film about African-American characters set 100 years ago would have to star two British actors, and be directed by British actor Rebecca Hall, in her directorial debut, as far as I know. But the thing is all of them, other than also being producers, executive producers and such, all three women have what people called “mixed heritage” or biracial or multiracial family backgrounds.
Ain’t none of us pureblood anything; that’s just a label the ignorant and cruel superimpose on the vulnerable for their own purposes.
Passing. I give it more than a passing grade. For a Netflix film, it’s probably one of the best produced. I really enjoyed it, though it’s ultimately quite a sad story, but that’s never been a negative as far as I’ve ever been concerned.
8 times there’s only so much you can hide from your kids before you’ve deliberately kept them ignorant out of 10
“We’re all passing for something or other, aren’t we?” – I’m trying to pass for a credible film reviewer, shush, don’t tell anyone I’m a fraud, please - Passing