Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A finely realized look at blurred racial lines


Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing takes a clear-eyed look at a delicate racial issue. Set in the 1920s, Passing focuses on two women who had been teenage friends but haven't seen each other for years. Tessa Thompson plays Irene, a Black woman living a middle-class life in Harlem with her physician husband (Andre Holland). Clare (Ruth Negga) is a light-completed woman who has been passing for white. She’s married to a racist banker (Alexander Skarsgard) who, of course, has no idea that his wife is Black. The two women reunite accidentally in cafe in a New York hotel where Irene is trying to escape the heat. After the meeting,  Clare begins to discover that she’s tired of posing. She wants to rekindle the spark of Black life that promises to release her from stultification. Filming in black-and-white and employing an old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with a carefully calibrated (but never lifeless) depiction of a world that’s vanished but still relevant.  The movie gains in complexity as Clare begins to spend more time with Irene and her family. The actors are asked to convey a host of subtleties and ironies and they more than rise to the occasion. Passing leaves us with much to unpack: the constraints of propriety on the Black bourgeoisie, the longing not only for equality but of freedom of cultural expression, questions about the images that people construct to insulate themselves from harsh truths. An ambiguous ending may frustrate some viewers, but Passing approaches a host of volatile subjects with nuance, delicacy, and some of the year's most beautifully realized performances. Available on Netflix and in some theaters.

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