Based on an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1920’s Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name, Netflix film Passing tells the story of two Black women, during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in late 1920s New York.
Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) are childhood friends who after a chance encounter rekindle their friendship. However, it’s no ordinary friendship. Both women purportedly can “pass” as white and Clare has fully embraced this pass, marrying an openly racist man (Alexander Skarsgard) and living in fear that her child’s true heritage may be discovered.
After meeting Irene in an affluent part of town one summer, Clare latches on and ingratiates herself to Irene’s family. Irene and her husband (played by André Holland) are leading characters in the colourful Harlem Renaissance era of the 1920’s and are clearly having a ball within their artistically creative social circle. Clare wants in. Having seen an alternative existence which fully embraces their Blackness, the secure, upper middle class, Brownstone-living Redfields are clearly family goals.
After Irene reluctantly allows Clare into her home, she soon appears to regret Clare’s influence and popularity wherever she seems to go. The film unfolds as an examination of obsession, repression and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities.
Passing marks the directorial debut of actress and filmmaker Rebecca Hall, who also adapted the screenplay. Hall, who had a Black, though passing for white, grandfather fell in love with the book after reading it 14 years ago, after grappling with her own identity. Acclaimed upon its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, on paper, Passing is about the exploration of racial identity but for me, the film didn’t quite go far enough along this theme and instead, aside from the ending, could have taken race out of the storyline completely to be a film about repression, jealousy, sexuality and performative femininity.
Much has been written about the fact that both actresses are hardly what we would consider “white passing” and as a Black woman I spent far too much time musing during the screening on whether they were indeed white passing. I read somewhere the other day that Black woman seem to have a radar when it comes to Blackness that is more imperceptible to white people. I would agree. Regardless, the film is a good watch. Costume design was on point, and I never get tired of watching rich Black people’s shenanigans. I just wish the film was more unapologetic in tackling the reality of the “white passing” theme.
Netflix film Passing is available on Netflix from 10 November 2021.