The new Netflix movie “Passing” centers around two Black women who can both “pass” as white but take different paths, one choosing to live as white, the other Black.
Set in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance, the film is an adaptation of the 1929 novel by Chicago author Nella Larsen. Larsen was born on the South Side of Chicago to immigrant parents. Her mother was from Denmark, her father was West- Indian. Being mixed-race herself, Larsen struggled with her racial identity, turning that experience into a novel.
The novel and film tell the story of two childhood friends who reunite during a chance encounter. Irene, played by Tessa Thompson, realizes her friend Clare, played by Ruth Negga, has been living a life as a white woman, and is married to a racist. In one scene, Clare’s husband expresses his dislike for Black Americans, not realizing he’s speaking with two Black women.
“This particular scene, I thought was beautiful,” said Carole V. Bell, who wrote a review of Larsen’s novel “Passing,” “Irene played by Tessa Thompson is immediately put on guard, whereas Clare, played by Ruth Negga is just smiling away, and I love that combination of emotions in that scene.”
The film also explores the feelings of loss and loneliness that come with “racial passing,” as it causes one to give up much of their culture and at times their friends and family.
“Living that life of constant worry of feeling like you’d be found out or exposed had to be terrifying, and the longing of something authentic, and she mentions it several times, feeling safe, you’re free and you’re safe, so the idea that passing somehow made Black people safer in society is really two sides of the same coin,” said Danielle Sanders, interim managing editor of the Chicago Defender, “You weren’t safe as a Black person living Black, and you weren’t safe as a Black person living as a white person.”
One of the film’s characteristics that may surprise viewers or catch them off guard is that it is entirely in black and white.
“I thought it was so perfect, I thought it was beautifully shot, and it actually helps to show the ambiguity, everything’s not always black and white, sometimes there’s shades of gray, and I thought that really tied into the subject matter the way they shot it,” said Sanders.