Netflix's Daring Social Drama 'Passing' Explores the Gray Areas of Identity
Rebecca Hall's directorial debut is a slow-burning period piece set during the Harlem Renaissance about the internal distress that results from one’s inability to be their true selves.
Th latest gripping black-and-white movie has landed on Netflix, and like many of the the streaming service's original Serious Films, Passing is a bit difficult to digest. Set during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1920s, Netflix’s new social drama serves as the first on-screen adaptation of Nella Larsen‘s 1929 novel of the same name, and it also marks British American actress and filmmaker Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut. Starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, the film is about two Black women and childhood friends who are so fair-skinned that they can “pass” as white women, and when they reunite as adults, they quickly realize that they have gone down completely divergent paths.
Irene Redfield (Thompson) has chosen to identify as a Black woman, marry a Black man, and raise two Black boys, while Clare Kendry (Negga) has slipped into white society unnoticed, married a white man who utterly despises Black people, and given birth to a baby girl whose skin is light enough to keep her life-threatening secret safe. Although the monochrome film focuses on the internal struggles of two friends whose complexions yield such racial ambiguity, Passing‘s premise is deeper than black and white.
Of course, choosing between life as a Black woman or a white woman has major implications for Irene and Clare, and upon stumbling back into each others' lives, they are forced to come to terms with their identities and question whether they can ever be fully satisfied with their decisions. However, the concept of “passing” evolves from a shared characteristic that ironically differentiates the two main characters to a broad metaphor that transcends the film’s exploration of race. As Irene tells her friend Hugh (Bill Camp)—whom Hall describes as a “semi-closeted gay intellectual modeled after Carl Van Vechten”—halfway through the film, “We’re all passing for something or other.”
The notion that most, if not all, of the characters in Passing are hiding their true identities—be it racial, sexual, or something else entirely—for social acceptance is fascinating, but in the same way that Irene and Clare are able to hide within white society, the film manages to camouflage many of its characters’ true selves from viewers. Alas, even if you theorize that Irene is depressed from not being able to address or act on what appears to be a sexual attraction to Clare, Passing goes to lengths to have the deeper details about its characters remain unclear. In fact, the film as a whole can at times feel almost annoyingly ambiguous, but given the fact that it is a faithful adaptation of a Harlem Renaissance-era novel that similarly avoided explicit mentions of sexuality, certain vague plot points get a pass.
However, Passing’s infatuation with casting doubt and uncertainty stretches far beyond Irene’s fondness for Clare. During the second half of the film, it appears that Irene’s white-passing friend is having an affair with her husband, Brian (André Holland), and although that conflict builds to intense and insurmountable levels, it is never confirmed whether or not Brian and Clare’s friendship ever actually grew inappropriate. Furthermore, our understanding of what happens in the climax scene, as well as throughout the rest of the film before that, ultimately comes down to your own interpretation.
Netflix’s new social drama is a slow-burning period piece that delivers an unprecedented tale about the internal distress that results from one’s inability to be their true selves, and despite a few patches of overly vague storytelling, Passing is a film that’s worthwhile. Presented in a gorgeous black-and-white filter and packed with enthralling performances from Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is both admirable and slightly uncomfortable, and maybe that’s a good thing.