What have you told him?
Irene’s (Tessa Thompson) hat is pulled down and her eyes lowered as she walks through a crowd of white customers inside a New York City toy store. Her words are brief. Her movements exacting. And when she sees a fallen man on the sidewalk, she second guesses her instinct to discover if he’s okay. Why? Because she’s not certain she’ll be okay if she does. Irene is a Black woman in 1920s white society doing everything she can to not be noticed. So, she hails a cab, heads to a nearby hotel, and sits to catch her breath before readying her return home. No one should give her a second glance here. Not the couple kissing, the senior ladies, nor … the newcomer who’s staring directly at her.
First-time writer/director Rebecca Hall bathes these women in so much light that the black and white contrast of Passing‘s (as adapted from Nella Larsen’s novel) prologue helps Clare’s (Ruth Negga) blonde hair render her skin pale white despite her laugh giving her truth away. Irene is ready to run upon watching Clare approach. She believes she’s been found out and wants to head for the door before she is thrown out instead. The laugh eases her anxiety, though, because she’s heard it before. She and Clare were classmates years ago and the latter is ecstatic for the reunion since she’s become so lonely living within her husband’s (Alexander Skarsgård‘s John) white world. Whereas she made “passing” her lifestyle, however, Irene merely does so on occasion to feel safe.
Can she therefore judge Clare’s decision? It’s a complex question to answer if one can answer it at all. Is Clare worse for building her entire identity around “passing?” One could argue that her parent’s death leading to her being raised by her white aunts forced her hand. What choice did she therefore have? Maybe Irene is worse because her choice is hers alone. It might even be less forgivable than that considering she volunteers for the Negro League despite consciously exploiting her light skin to do exactly what so many of her peers can’t. Is Irene a hypocrite? Is Clare opportunistic? Or are they both simply trying to stay alive inside a country so divided and hateful that they must weigh these options at all?
It’s easy for Irene to write Clare off upon discovering her husband John is a racist who believes his wife hates Black people just as much as him. It’s easy to hate her for silently allowing him to think that way so she doesn’t have to hate herself for benefiting from the fact that she could do the same if she wanted. Move into Irene’s home and you see that she also uses class and social standing as weapons whether by having renowned white friends (Bill Camp‘s Hugh) or money to treat her maid (Ashley Ware Jenkins‘ Zulena) like the “help.” Her own husband (André Holland‘s Brian) has wanted to leave America for years because of what he sees, but she relents. Her alleged “safety” clouds her judgment.
That “safety” doesn’t apply to Brian or their dark-skinned sons, though. Rather than acknowledge it, she chooses to bury her head in the sand and demand her husband do the same. Irene doesn’t want him talking to the boys about lynchings. He wants to protect them by opening their eyes to the fact their country wants them dead and she still believes they’d be happier with ignorance until reaching an unknown older age. But ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s a handicap. Where these kids could have been warned and prepared for the evils in this world, they suddenly must confront them without warning as they become the target of hate that Irene has perhaps avoided. She fears for Clare being found out more than her children for simply being.
There’s a profound sense of helplessness in that reality that only gets exacerbated when Clare injects herself into their lives. Reuniting with Irene has made her long for the comfort and ease of being herself. Clare doesn’t feel as though she is in prison when hanging out with them. And she risks everything to enjoy that freedom. So, of course Irene will grow jealous when she finds Brian and her whispering and laughing together. She sees Clare as everything she could be and, perhaps, everything she should be despite her husband assuring her throughout the entire film that the opposite is true. At a certain point we realize Irene is “passing” too after all. Only instead of “passing” as white, she’s “passing” as Black. Everyone “passes” as something.
The ramifications of this are profound in a way that ultimately combines race, culture, economics, etc. under the single umbrella of identity and our communal struggle to maintain a balance between who we are and who we believe we should be. And since it’s all told from Irene’s perspective, we’re often shielded from the struggle Clare faces on her side of the equation. Jokes are made and assumptions are lobbed, but the pain is often glossed over by the smiles because Irene sees them as something they are not. The life Clare brings to a party isn’t some fabrication. She isn’t flipping a switch on. She’s finally leaving it off. I’m not sure we ever see Irene that unburdened. She’s straddling too many worlds to remember her own.
Hall and Larsen are therefore setting up a tense thriller in many respects wherein we know something is going to have to give before the end. Whatever it is, however, it won’t be either Irene or Clare’s fault. Blame will always land squarely on the shoulders of a society constructed on a foundation of white supremacy. It instills the fear that Brian feels as well as the opportunity Irene and Clare possess to escape the same. You can’t blame them for wanting to find a middle ground or for discovering the ways in which they’ve negated the dangers some parts of themselves hold by leaning into the rewards of others. That’s survival and it sadly sometimes causes one to project that which they dislike about themselves onto others.
The result is a captivating glimpse behind the curtain of the juggling act that is life in America for someone who wasn’t born as part of the ruling class. Thompson is fantastic in the lead role. The way she unravels at the realization that she is doing many of the things her friend does in the opposite direction is heartbreaking and authentic. But don’t let it distract from the work Negga is doing on the periphery. Her performance is just as raw and perhaps more complicated due to the extra layer of artifice. One could say Hall has created a film about adultery wherein these women are having affairs with worlds just outside their reach, culminating in a tragic moment that shows nobody is safe unless everyone is.
 PASSING – (L-R) RUTH NEGGA as CLARE and TESSA THOMPSON as IRENE. Cr: Netflix © 2021
 PASSING – (L-R) ANDRÉ HOLLAND as BRIAN and TESSA THOMPSON as IRENE. Cr: Emily V. Aragones/Netflix © 2021
 PASSING – (L to R) RUTH NEGGA as CLARE and ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD as JOHN. Netflix © 2021