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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz


Passing Will Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life

See It Or Skip It: See It

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing which she also wrote is a psychologically uncomfortable triumph that examines colorism and racial identity through a portal where there is no privacy.

Set in late 1920s New York, Passing introduces us to Irene (Tessa Thompson), a young biracial woman who enters a whites-only hotel tea room with her head tilted and her hat covering most of her face. She is soon approached by a blond woman who insists she knows her. The blonde is Clare (Ruth Negga), an old friend Irene grew up with in Chicago. With the ability to pass for white, both women have chosen different lives. Irene embraces her black identity and lives in a Harlem brownstone with her husband Brian (Andre Holland) and their two sons. Clare, while not ashamed of her black heritage, wanted a more privileged life. She dyed her hair blonde and married the first man who came along after leaving home.

Unfortunately for her, she married proud racist John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgard). Oblivious to his wife’s ancestry, he openly despises blacks in front of Irene whom Clare invited to her hotel room for drinks. Clare also pretends to share her husband's views. Clearly disturbed, Irene doesn’t out Clare but ignores her letter of apology until she shows up at her home confessing that she misses Irene (Rennie as was her childhood nickname). Irene and Clare rekindle their friendship and as Clare becomes a larger presence in Irene’s life, both women must come to terms with the realities of the separate lives they’ve chosen.

Irene’s seemingly perfect life is not maintained by control but rather commitment. Commitment to every little detail as though she’s an architect on the verge of finishing a house that’s absolutely flawless. Clare coming by the house regularly whenever she feels like it, going out to parties with her, and becoming an aunt of sorts to Irene’s sons was not put into writing when Irene started to construct this perfect life/house. It was never about control for her but it started to be. If John found out the truth, where would Clare (And her young daughter) go but to Irene’s for a new start permanently?

Clare isn’t hungry anymore. She’s starving. Starving to return to her culture and the people she feels more at home with. I wouldn’t say she’s reckless. Certainly not in the traditional sense but she’s very naive about the danger she’s putting herself by reclaiming what she’d been repressing for so long. The first time Clare wants to accompany Irene and Brain to a gathering that consists of people black and white, she basically turns into a little girl. Irene insists it’s not safe and Clare follows her up the stairs pleading like a child who wants to stay up past her bedtime.

“ Oh please Rennie! It’ll be swell! It’ll be lots of fun. You won’t have to look after me. I’ll be good as gold”.

She talks like Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby but has a twinkling innocence in her eyes like Shirley Temple in everything.

The way Clare inserts herself into any corner she wishes is at times very invasive but this is clearly someone who is in need of a family. She grew up with two white aunts who just tolerated her presence and the weight of being a burden made her want to leave it all behind. She did, getting mixed up in something she sees as far worse and so now she wants to come home. It’s as though she and Irene are children again who have bunk beds. Clare wanted to sleep in the top bunk but now she’s afraid of heights and wants to come back down. Truly a kitten stuck in a tree and Irene is the annoyed firefighter whose evening is being disrupted because she has to pluck her from the branch and bring her down in front of everyone.

Irene: Do you ever think of what’d you’d do if John found out?

Clare: I’d do what I want more than anything right now. I’d come up here to live. With you.

Clare abandoned her roots because she thought privilege would satisfy her starvation. It did for a while. She’s sleeping in the dark which she thought she could do but evidently not as she now wants her special night light plugged into the wall: Irene. Irene is not just the nightlight. She’s the entire sound system with new apps for gentle waves, waterfalls, rain, and crickets.

Irene is genuinely drawn to Clare and cares about her but it starts to be way too much. Something about her is taking over her life and sending her spiraling into paranoia and exhaustion. Irene has this air of toxic sophistication. She claims she doesn’t need to pass because she has everything she ever wanted but benefits from privileges Brian and her sons don’t have. At least when she’s out in the world and people don’t know her. If it’s a steaming hot day, she can just get some iced tea at a white-only tea room and then go home to her family. I don’t blame her for this of course. I’d probably do the same thing but it’s not until she sees Clare dancing at a party that she confesses to her white friend that occasionally, she’ll pass when in the city.

She says it like it’s nothing but her stone still eyes make it look as though the words taste bitter coming out of her mouth. She also can get a bit snippy with her black maid and fights with Brian about having honest conversations with the boys about racism, especially her older son who’s learning about the lynching of black men accused of assaulting white women.

Irene wants to preserve their youth and innocence. She’s starting to realize she can’t relate to her family whom she loves. She could acknowledge that things are harder for them and join Brian in educating their kids but she just can’t bring herself to enter that world. She’s more like Clare than she realizes and Clare is more like Irene (A happier version of her anyway) than she realized. The difference is Clare embraces what she learns about herself while Irene is in denial that starts to tug at her mental state. Clare may pass for white but Irene is really the one who’s passing. Clare learns what’s what as she continues to thrive in Irene’s world while Irene becomes bitter.

Irene has certain self-righteousness to her that reminds me of Kerry Washington in Little Fires Everywhere. You don’t particularly care for her but you root for her because of who she’s up against. In Passing, Irene is really only up with herself. Clare was ashamed of her roots for a time but like Izzy (the white girl who looks up to Kerry Washington in Little Fires Everywhere), she’s a lost soul who just wants to be loved. She’s genuinely trying to be proud of her identity (Also like Izzy) and embrace it despite all the dangers while Irene can’t seem to stop thinking about Clare’s life for passing. It’s as though Irene regrets her choices and if Clare wasn’t there, it would be easier for Irene to go on pretending she’s happy or that she has anything in common with her family anymore. Clare really fits more into Irene’s life than Irene does and Irene is freaking out over this.

Alexander Skarsgard is only in a couple of scenes but his portrayal of ignorance and evil is out of this world. Most films portray racists as angry but John is what you’d call a jovial racist. Always with a smile on his face, he laughs about how black people are to him, not people at all. He has a horrifying nickname for his wife for a horrible reason and it’s not until everything comes crashing down at the end that that jolly smile turns to one of shock and fury. He is the kind of racist who laughs like a hyena at blackface in silent films. He’s beyond terrifying. Just imagine the Mad Hatter in the Ku Klux Klan. His insane mad smile is one I'm still trying to forget. I cannot forget, even when I close my eyes. There are still too many people like him. Maybe even more than before as nauseating and shameful a possibility it is to admit. There’s nothing like progressiveness to fuel an oppressor's fire.

At some point in the third act, you start to realize where Passing is going to end and while it’s inevitable, it still shocks you to the core. Passing opens so quietly and descends into chatter amongst those in the city while it closes with everything getting really quiet amongst the ruins of what was newfound happiness. The most horrible outcome of all happens and the film retreats into a state of shock and overwhelming quietness.

Rebecca Hall’s grandfather on her mother’s side passed for most of his life and she never knew his story. Until now. Hall has made what may just be the most important film of our time and for that, she should be indescribably proud of herself. Black, white, biracial. We’re all just ghosts. Not even people anymore, just ghosts. Lost souls trying to get by with no endgame in sight anymore. Passing is a ghost film that will haunt you for the rest of your life. Everyone’s story is different and many of us have far more privilege than others but as Clare learns, a privilege only gets you so far. Passing is a universal film above all else. We all relate. Maybe none of us really ever know how we got here or know if we’re really being seen.

As Irene says: “We’re all of us passing for something or other.

Aren’t we?

“Passing (2021).” IMDb, 10 Nov. 2021,

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