Monday, August 15, 2022

Review: Black, White & Grayscale in Superior ‘Passing’

Rarely have shades of black and white, cinematically speaking, looked so beautifully lush as in Passing by, Rebecca Hall’s extremely impressive directorial debut.

But essentially, this movie is about grayscale.

In other words, motives, desires, and ambitions are even more layered and structured than the visuals in this calm, compelling film set in Prohibition-era New York and exploring ideas of race, identity, and the poisonous ripples of painful lies.

Adapted by Hall from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, Walker explores the two sides of a racial divide through a pair of childhood friends who happened to meet many years later. The women, played by the unusual duo of Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, are black, but they made a completely different choice: one lives like Black, the other “passes” like white.

The story goes a long way to director Hall: Her own American grandfather was Black, but lived white for many years, she says. She grew up in the UK and never knew him personally – he died when her mother was a teenager – but his story clearly influenced her nonetheless.

We meet Irene (Thompson) for the first time, a doctor’s wife and mother of two living in the comfortable upper-middle class environment of Harlem while shopping on a hot summer day in the city center. Dressed in a thin summer dress and a see-through hat (Marcy Rogers ‘costumes are lovely, especially the’ 20s hats), she seems to use the brim of the hat as a shield, keeping her eyes down so other visitors – all white – don’t look too closely.

Escaping the brutal heat in the hotel’s tea room, she sees a prosperous white couple from Chicago enter. After her husband leaves, his wife, dressed in a gorgeous blonde bob, looks at Irene. She says she knows her. Irene says she must be wrong, but the woman’s familiar laugh reminds her: this is Claire, a childhood friend from Harlem.

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They talk, and Irene boldly asks if Claire’s husband knows that she is Black. He is not. In Claire’s room, she explains how she made her choice: having money is great. In fact, she says, “it fully justifies its cost.” This “price” includes praying during nine months of pregnancy for her daughter to become light-skinned (she did) so that she can continue her trick. However, “I have everything I ever wanted,” says Claire.

Then husband John (Alexander Skarsgard, in another role of the villain) returns to the room. It turns out he’s an odious racist. He calls Claire a shocking nickname – a personal joke – and denigrates all blacks. When Irene hurries out, Claire looks longingly out the door, as if to say, “Please take me with you.”

Summer turns into autumn (Hall and cinematographer Edouard Grau do an amazing job of recreating the changing seasons without using color), and Irene ignored Claire’s letters, who just appears on the doorstep one day and is so eager to be part of Irene’s life.

At first, Irene gives in – she has feelings for Claire that she herself does not fully understand – and soon Claire accompanies Irene and her doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland, also excellent) to Irene’s swanky charity ball, reveling in the opportunity. dance and laugh with black people. She desperately needs this connection; the fear that her husband might find out about it seems more Irene than Claire.

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This ball scene is stunning with its fun dancing and sparkly dresses. Here and elsewhere, Devonté Hynes jazz music provides a wonderfully memorable soundtrack to Claire’s headlong descent into danger, ending in one of the most disturbing (yet downright beautiful) finals you’ll see this year.

Negga is a heartbreaking woman who seems to understand, despite her hilarious appearance, that her trick is running out. And Thompson is fascinating as a woman whose own life, although more truthful and happier than Claire’s, is not devoid of strife, aspirations and contradictions.

For example: Irene refuses to let Brian tell his boys about the dangers of being black in America – there was a lynching in Arkansas and he thinks boys should know. For her, silence is a less painful option.

Irene also has feelings for Claire that seem to run deeper than friendship. And her own complex ideas about race and class are evident in her relationships with domestic workers.

Irene is aware of some of these complexities. Others seem to be hidden under the surface. But when she looks at the crowded dance floor and notices to a friend that “we take everything for this or that, don’t we?”, There is a feeling that she looks just as well in the mirror.

“Passing”, a Netflix release, was rated PG-13 by the Film Association for “Feature Content, Certain Racial Harassment, and Smoking.” The duration of the performance is 98 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four


Definition of PG-13 MPAA: Strongly Advised Parents. Some content may not be suitable for children under the age of 13.

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