‘Passing’ puts a fresh spin on an old-fashioned story about race and identity : NPR
david bianculli, host:
this is fresh air. In the new film “Passing,” based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play two old acquaintances who have very different attitudes about their racial identity. The film, now playing in theaters and premiering on Netflix on November 10, was written and directed by actress Rebecca Hall. Our general reviewer, John Powers, says that Hall makes a story that may seem old-fashioned tremble with meaning.
John Power, Author: In 1982, Julie Dash made a scathing short film called “Illusions.” It starred Lonette McKee as an African-American woman who, posing as white, works as a Hollywood executive during World War II. her war, she says, is not being fought abroad. she’s getting movies to finally show black lives in her human complexity. i think she would be pleased with the new netflix movie “going by”, an adaptation of nella larsen’s 1929 novella which, like “illusions”, focuses on a black woman pretending to be white, but also one who could pretend but it doesn’t. . Written and directed by British actress Rebecca Hall, this witty and haunting debut unfolds to a quiet ending full of confusion and sadness.
tessa thompson stars as irene, a prudish doctor’s wife in late 1920s harlem. one day she takes advantage of her fair skin to go for tea atop a luxurious white hotel. she there she meets clare, that she is ruth nega, whom she met in her youth. She learns that Clare, who is even lighter-skinned, has spent the last 12 years passing by, including marrying a prosperous white man played by Alexander Skarsgard. Upon meeting him, Irene is horrified. he is an outright racist who uses the n-word. she can’t wait to get away from them. but clare seems hungry for the black culture she has lost by posing as white. she begins to insinuate herself into irene’s life. Vibrantly seductive but unattached, Clare will do whatever it takes to be happy. Her presence mystifies the wary Irene, who wonders if this intruder is having an affair with her husband, played by Andre Holland. Meanwhile, we wonder if Irene, who deflects her husband’s sexual advances from her, isn’t attracted to Clare.
here at a black welfare league dance, irene is chatting with her acquaintance hugh, beautifully played by bill camp, a white writer interested in harlem life. When he gets her to look closely at Clare, who is on the dance floor, he is shocked to realize the truth.
(excerpt from the movie, “passing”)
bill camp: (as hugh) damn me.
tessa thompson: (as irene) no one can tell by looking at her.
camp: (as hugh) no. more surprising tell me, can you always tell the difference?
thompson: (as irene) oh, now you really seem ignorant.
camp: (as hugh) no, no. I’m serious. feelings of kinship or something?
thompson: (as irene) hugh, stop talking to me like you’re writing an article for national geographic. I can say the same as you. but I guess sometimes there’s something, something that can’t be registered.
camp: (as hugh) yes. I get what you mean, but a lot of people pass by all the time.
thompson: (like irene) it’s easy for a black to pass for white. I’m not sure it’s that easy for a white person to pass as mestizo.
camp: (as hugh) never thought of that.
thompson: (as irene) no, hugh, why should you?
Powers: It’s a clever exchange, but this scene actually underscores a feature of the movie that needs to be accommodated. Although Hugh should be instructed to realize that Clare is not white, to me and to most people I’ve spoken to, Clare from Negga just doesn’t seem like it could happen. the problem is not her excellent performance, which has the slippery depths of a lake covered with thin ice; is the appearance of it.
Fortunately, the film is about more than just the rather old-fashioned idea of dying. Hall is herself of mixed race. Her maternal grandfather was African American, and I imagine Larsen’s slim book filled her mind with what-if jokes. she certainly has filled her film with cinematic ideas, from her dreamy shift of focus to her jarring piano music. Harking back to the cinematic style of the 1920s, Hall uses a small, square frame to make the characters feel enclosed, even as the beautiful black and white palette reminds us that even in a society defined by black and white, the world is largely made. of shades of gray. “Pass” is better for revealing twilight emotional conflicts, and not just for Clare, who wants the benefits of being white but finds out the price of that ticket.
here, everyone is passing in one way or another. irene’s husband happens to be a pillar of the harlem community when he hates his patients and wants to flee american racism for brazil. the writer hugh passes for an enlightened man, but his racial sentiments are tinged with an exotic superiority. And then there’s Irene, who presents herself to the world and often to herself as a good wife and mother, content with her life in Harlem. Watching Thompson’s layered performance, we realize that things are not that simple. she is also playing a role. In fact, the only person she doesn’t need to pass is Clare’s husband, who enjoys the perks of being a racist, rich white man. he becomes who he really is. all this, too, exacts a terrible cost. in the end, “pass” shows the multifaceted truth of a line from james baldwin: the reason people think it’s important to be white is because they think it’s important not to be black.
bianculli: john powers reviewed the new movie “passing”. On Monday’s show, filmmaker Edgar Wright. his movies include “baby driver” and “shaun of the dead”. his most recent is a thriller called “last night in soho”. It is about a young woman who is transported in her dreams to 1960s London, where she lives the life of another woman. Thrilling at first, her dreams turn into nightmares that haunt her throughout her waking hours. I hope you can join us.
(song excerpt, “wishin’ and hopin'”)
dusty springfield: (singing) wishing and hoping and thinking and praying, planning and dreaming every night of her charms. That won’t get you into her arms. So if you’re looking to find the love you can share, all you have to do is hug and kiss…
bianculli: the executive producer of fresh air is danny miller. our senior producer today is roberta shorrock. our engineering and technical director is audrey bentham with additional engineering support from joyce lieberman, julian herzfeld and al banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Kayla Lattimore. our digital media producer is molly seavy-nesper. For Terry Gross, I’m David Bianculli.
(song excerpt, “wishin’ and hopin'”)
springfield: (singing) …begin. that won’t get you in her ear. So if you’re thinking how great true love is, all you have to do is hug it, kiss it and squeeze it…
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