Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Netflix’s Passing stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in Rebecca Hall’s directing debut. It follows the lives of two light-skinned black women, both capable of ‘passing’. Beatrice Oladeji reviews.
Set in 1920s Harlem, Passing depicts the harsh realities of living in a time where racism, colourism and segregation were raging against black people. Because of this, many African Americans with European ancestry who appeared visibly European would ‘pass’ as white to avoid the tribulations inflicted on black individuals.
she seemed almost a little too perfect
Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) first struck me as a woman who was very well put together, a woman with an ‘ideal’ life. Her loving black husband Brian (Andre Holland), a beautiful home with their own maid, two boisterous and very smart sons – seemingly the perfect middle-class family. She seemed almost a little too perfect.
However, we soon realise that there is more to her than she initially lets on. It is clear that behind her polished appearance, Irene is battling with her own insecurities, of which become more inflated upon the arrival of her old friend Claire.
Irene is infatuated by Claire; her beauty, her fun and flirty nature; her bleach-blonde hair, even her popularity amongst the members of the ‘Negro Welfare League’, as well as winning over Irene’s two sons. We see this infatuation slowly turn to jealousy, as Claire seems to gain popularity with almost everyone in Irene’s life – including her initially apprehensive husband.
Ruth Negga embodies her role very convincingly, most likely drawing on her own experiences as a light-skinned biracial woman. Her character Claire seemingly appears to enjoy her life posing as a white woman. She is married to a wealthy white man John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgard), a raging racist who nicknames her a racial slur due to her darker toned skin.
John is more than convinced his wife is not ‘coloured’, declaring “You can turn as black as you please, I know you’re not coloured!”. Claire is fully invested in her facade, until she visits Irene in her home in Harlem, and is reintroduced to the thriving and flamboyant nature of African American culture, an element of her identity she had suppressed for so long. Striving to rediscover her forgotten history, she is reintegrated into black culture with reluctant help from Irene, risking the chance of her true identity being disclosed.
the film does require concentration
The movie is shot in monochrome which I personally thought made it more authentic, as though I was viewing a ‘day in the life’ from the 1920s. However, the choppy cuts to various time frames within the plot were quick and at times confusing, so the film does require concentration (and a lot of rewinding), along with some obscurities that require the viewer to do some ‘filling in’.
The scene changes are very vibrant, particularly in the scenes showing the peaks of the roaring twenties including an authentic jazz party with upbeat jazz music, a hearty juxtaposition to the melancholic piano music littered throughout the film. I definitely felt as though I was observing an artefact from the 1920s and not a twenty-first century production.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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