Synopsis: Two Black women in 1920’s NYC re-establish a friendship, one of the women passes herself off as white. (Streaming on Netflix)
Passing is a story about identity, specifically racial identity. It is also a story about frenemy-ship. The movie is based on a 1929 novella by Nella Larsen which explores the relationship between two light-skinned Black women: Irene (Tessa Thompson, of Creed and Thor: Ragnarok) and Clare (Ruth Negga, of Loving). The two knew each other in school, but haven’t been in touch for years.
Irene/Tessa T. lives in Harlem with her successful doctor husband, Brian (Andre Holland) who is also Black. We see her at the beginning of the movie discreetly moving through “white” public spaces: department stores and a fancy hotel. Irene stops at the latter for a refreshment and is approached by Clare/Ruth N. from across the dining room. She swans over looking like Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, bedecked in an expensive-looking gossamer dress with her blond hair fashionably marcel-curled. Irene looks a little afraid when Clare insists that they know each other. At first Irene doesn’t recognize her because her Black friend is now presenting as white. Now-white Clare tells Irene that she and her husband are staying at the hotel and invites her to their room to socialize. Irene seems hesitant about Clare’s enthusiastic desire to re-bond. Irene’s going to get a lot more uncomfortable…
Enter Alexander Skarsgard as Clare’s very white husband, John. Irene doesn’t know what to say: does he know his wife is Black? Apparently not because within five minutes he’s making racist jokes– figuring that Irene will laugh along since all three of them are white. Wrong, Mr. Racist, only you are white. Skarsgard gives his character the look of a guy who can go from boisterous fun-lover to raging a-hole in no time flat. Irene wisely makes her excuses and leaves.
Back home, Irene is safe from the powder keg that is Clare’s marriage and gets back to her routine: caring for her two school age sons, catching up with her husband when he gets home from work, managing her household (she has a housekeeper) and organizing charitable events for the Negro League.
You should know something about Irene… she often seems on the verge of fainting. We’ve seen her nearly swoon when she saw a fallen pedestrian being assisted by passersby. Okay, understandable. But she also has to steady herself when taking a pesky phone call, catching her husband’s gaze in the mirror and when she walks across a room carrying a teapot. I began to suspect that she had fibromyalgia or anemia after multiple scenes of her asleep in a chair in the middle of the day. Fortunately, there is a trusty grandfather clock in the same room whose chiming rouses her from her slumber before her family returns home from school and work. But there will be no real rest for Irene…
Clare starts writing letters to her about how she misses being Black, referencing dances and home cooking. In other words, could she visit her in Harlem and take a break from being white. I could imagine that she would get pretty tired of her husband’s racist jokes. Irene’s husband just shakes his head at the unhappiness that she’s made for herself with her “passing” lifestyle.
Clare starts calling, Irene sputters that it wouldn’t be safe for her to visit — what if racist husband finds out? But Clare just laughs that off because her racist husband would never go to Harlem. Unless he wanted to start a race riot or something.
Clare is unstoppable: she shows up on Irene’s doorstep. Irene blurts out that them hanging out together is a bad idea. But then Clare cries and Irene tries to placate her by inviting her to a community dance she has organized. Woo-hoo! It couldn’t come at a better time: Clare’s daughter just started boarding school in Switzerland –earlier Clare had told Irene that she was so happy that her daughter looked white– and her husband is on a business trip. Probably for KKK Business Leaders.
The night of the dance arrives and Irene accompanies Clare and her husband like they are some kind of thruple. Everyone is dressed elegantly and enjoying dancing to the jazz band while Clare talks to the guest of honor, a white novelist by the name of Hugh Wentworth. That does sound like a novelist name! He analyzes the scene and asks Clare why she thinks white people flock to the Harlem nightlife. Exoticism, she says. Then Hugh asks how she knows the blonde white lady who is flirting and dancing up a storm. It dawns on him that Clare is white, which he seems to approve of as a wily upward mobility plan. Sort of like joining the Honor Society. He asks Irene why a Black person wouldn’t pass as white if they were light-skinned enough? Well, you dummy, because then you’d be turning your back on your community and family! But Clare is too proper to set him straight.
And Clare does miss her community. We know this because she keeps telling Irene and because she keeps showing up at Irene’s home. Besides wrangling invites for nights out with Irene and husband Brian, she begins insinuating herself into Irene’s family life; befriending Irene’s son and the housekeeper. And what of Brian, he must be pretty sick of all this, right? Welll…. he no longer thinks she’s flaky. In fact–hot goss– they are always in a corner at every party, laughing and leaning in close together talking.
Wake up, Irene! This is your husband, not hers! But what does she do? Well, one night the thruple is going out to play bridge when the babysitter calls to cancel. Guess it’s time to head home, Clare. Instead! Clare sends her husband out with her pretty friend, telling them she’ll stay home with the children.
Another evening, Clare and Irene are sitting on the stoop listening to Irene’s neighbor playing trumpet across the way. After just a moment, the sultry tune has put a spell on Irene and she stand up, moving toward the sound. Her southern belle voice gets husky and she says she wishes she was good like Irene. Then she reveals that she’d do anything to get what she wants. Uh, oh, we are deep into enemy territory in this frenemy-ship.
Apparently no one ever taught Clare about frenemies and how to break up from someone who gives you the chills. Instead she ends up spending the next few days lying in bed looking feverish and imagining Irene’s tinkling laughter. Perhaps laughter that Clare will steal Brian away?
In the America of a century ago, people didn’t have the option of biracial pride, segregation being the social and often literal law of the land. But women of all skin colors have always had the option of breaking up with a frenemy. Repeat after me, Irene: Buh-bye, Clare!
P.S. Writer-director Rebecca Hall reports that while investigating her heritage, she learned that she had a grandfather who was Black, but passed as white. Uh… sounds a little like a publicist’s yarn, but there you have it.
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