(US Rated PG-13)
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgard
Where to watch: Netflix
Dwight’s Rating: 3 stars
In well over a century now of motion pictures, we’ve seen a lot of individuals passing themselves off as other people.
Frequently we have characters pretending to be members of certain professions.
All the time we get bad people passing themselves off as good, and even good ones trying to be bad.
There’ve been more than a few films featuring men pretending to be women. And sometimes women trying to pass as men.
And there are countless movies about non-humans making themselves look and act like humans – from aliens to robots and vampires to werewolves.
But besides some outrageous comedies, and with the possible exception of what amounts to a side story in the two versions of “Imitation of Life”, the issue of “racial passing” is rarely discussed on the big screen. It’s one of the few matters that Hollywood seems to be afraid to touch.
And only recently have we seen television “boldly” delve into the extremely controversial topic of “colorism” – discrimination and prejudice against people based on skin tone, particularly those with dark skin, and often among people of the same racial or ethnic group.
The new film “Passing” explores these decades-old – generations-old – real-life problems, finally. The fact that the remarkable novel (of the same name) on which the picture is based was released in 1929 underscores how long we’ve faced these challenges.
As with the book, in the film, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class light-skinned black woman, finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tea room of New York City’s whites-only Drayton Hotel in the 1920s. Irene is extremely nervous as she is definitely not supposed to be there. Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene’s world is upended when she realizes the woman is a former childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who’s passing as white.
From these tense opening scenes to the unsettling ending, there is a constant sense of foreboding. While quiet and sensitive, the film keeps you on the edge.
This intensifies as it becomes obvious that the title refers to more than just racial “passing”, as Irene seems to be dealing with a number of other issues. She takes on an obsession with Clare, and is consumed with thoughts about social standing too. “We’re all passing as something”, she tells a white friend.
One wonders, what else is Irene “passing” as?
That question, like many others, is left largely unanswered, and it’s up to viewers to come to their own conclusions. The book, by Nella Larsen, who was of mixed-race, gives slightly more hints about those answers. But first-time director Rebecca Hall wisely allows “Passing” to maintain some mystery and intrigue. The English actress (“The Awakening” and “Godzilla vs. Kong”) also wrote the screenplay, and has delivered a near masterpiece.
It is stunningly beautiful. The bold choice to film in black and white proves to be the perfect choice, accentuating the suave stylishness of the music, set design and fashions. The camera angles and composition of the scenes make every frame appear to be a portrait.
That subtlety in the script is genius, but will no doubt infuriate some who may want everything spelled out for them. But there’s more fun in being left to speculate.
There’s also a lot of fun watching some of the best performances of the year.
Thompson (“For Colored Girls” and HBO’s “Westworld”) is simply amazing, and continues to prove she’s an actor who will deservedly be a household name in no time.
Oscar-nominee Negga (“Loving”) as Clare is fantastic, and has some of the most powerful eyes of anyone in the film industry. You can tell everything you need to know in her facial expressions. It’s quite a sight to behold.
Andre Holland (“Moonlight”) is also very strong as Irene’s husband, and Emmy winner Alexander Skarsgard (HBO’s “Big Little Lies”) is shocking and disturbing in a small but unforgettable role.
“Passing” is one of the best films of 2021. That work based on a nearly 100-year-old novel can be as socially relevant today as it was a century ago shows that no matter how much we change as people, some things sadly will always remain the same.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.