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Passing (2021) | Film Review

by Ask Vestergaard

photo courtesy of IMDb

In Rebecca Hall’s sumptuous adaptation of Nella Larsen’s eponymous 1929 novel, a Black woman passes for white and reaches for the comforts of upper-class life by marrying a white man – a white man who absolutely despises Black folk. She is a mother – one who spent her pregnancy terrified that she might birth a child dirtied by too much melanin – and yet she passes as childless. She sends her daughter to a Swiss boarding school and then plunges back into her past by attending jazz parties in Harlem to relive the exciting life of a bachelorette away from the watchful gaze of her pale patriarch.

She passes as a single, childless white woman so well, in fact, that she practically lives as one even when surrounded by Black people. Men lust after her pallid and blonde beauty, and her excitement and curiosity about Black culture seems less about solidarity and more about how exotic it all is compared to her upmarket lifestyle.

Another mother passes as apolitical, desperately sheltering her children from news of lynchings and institutional racism even as she openly organizes charity events for a Negro Welfare League. She, too, is light-skinned, and occasionally chooses to pass in affluent neighbourhoods, but beyond that, she lives a life that many would consider archetypically white. She is wealthy, expensively dressed, poshly spoken, has two well-behaved sons, a handsome doctor for a husband, and a lower-class Black maid who cooks, cleans, and obeys, and has skin that is much darker than her employer’s.

Two women pass as straight, while exchanging touches and strokes and longing, jealous glances. A gathering of Black dancers passes as private and emancipatory while being drooled over and ogled by outsiders who might as well be at the zoo. A white author passes as an ally against the forces of bigotry, but his support is leering and winkingly fetishistic. A husband passes as faithful as his heart throbs for another. A boy passes for a man with political opinions that he does not understand. A fanatical racist passes as respectable and kind. Mournful jazz trumpets and a trilling piano pass as a soundtrack, until they become diegetic as characters bring attention to them. A monochromatic film has cinematography so lush that it somehow passes as colourful. And while this might sound trite since it is their job, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga lose themselves utterly, passing perfectly for the people they portray. And ultimately, the immaculate skill in which this movie has been created makes it pass as the capstone of a long and distinguished oeuvre, despite the fact that it is Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut.

Wow. Who’d have thought – Passing is a film about passing.


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