Claire (Ruth Negga).
You cannot take your eyes off Ruth Negga’s Claire, a Black woman who can pass for White in New York in the fading days of The Roaring Twenties. Not only can she pass for White but she lives as a White woman who is married to a racist White man (Alexander Skarsgard) and has a daughter who, thank the lord, was born White enough not to raise any suspicions.
Irene (Tessa Thompson)
Then there is Irene (Tessa Thompson) who can also pass but being slightly darker than Claire has decided to live her life as a Black woman. A cultured middle-class Black woman who is married to a Black doctor, (Andre Holland), has two handsome young boys, and lives in a lovely Harlem brownstone. It is a time of astonishing Black creativity; the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, from almost the first moment that we meet her, we feel that there is something missing from Irene’s life.
The Hottest Day of the Year.
We meet her on a scorching summer afternoon. It’s 1929 and she has ventured out of Harlem into White New York to do some shopping. People are dropping like flies all around her so she decides, as she presumably does on some occasions, to “pass” . She will cool off with a cold drink in one of those gorgeous but “White-Only” Art Deco hotels that line Central Park and Park Avenue. She likes to wear wide-brimmed hats which possibly help her pull off this ruse but also give her a boost of confidence. The hat divides her head in two, a vaguely cubist look, and she is always looking out under the brim like Bette Davis in” Now Voyager“.
The ruse works and she enters a magnificent air-conditioned lounge where the well-appointed patrons (remember, this is the summer before the crash) pay her no notice and the staff treat her well, like a White person. Sitting in the audience we feel, like Irene. We feel like we have entered Heaven. And in this Heaven Irene sees a vision. A woman of such beauty and grace that both she and the audience are in a sort of delicious trance. And the woman is staring straight at her and smiling. The woman then rises from her chair and appears to be leaving but no, wait, she is actually headed for Irene who is completely flummoxed. Irene does not recognize that it is her old friend Claire from high school who, granted, has undergone a few changes like dying her hair peroxide blond.
Take My Breath Away
The opening sequence of writer/director Rebecca Halls’s directorial debut “Passing”, is so beautifully directed, photographed (Eduard Grau is the cinematographer and the lensing is in black and white or, more accurately, a thousand shades of grey) and acted that, at times, it literally takes your breath away. In many ways, it is the highlight of the film.
Claire’s Harlem Renaissance.
Claire invites Irene up to her hotel room where they have a drink and Irene meets Claire’s husband who, not knowing that she is Black makes a couple of racist statements. Despite this, Irene stays for the afternoon and , as she is leaving, Claire asks her if she can visit her and immerse herself in the Harlem nightlife as a Black woman. Irene is reluctant at first. For all the admiration there is something overwhelming and smothering about Claire and also probably an unnamed attraction. And there is also Irene’s own life and the choices that she has made.
Carl Van Vechten.
There is one great scene at a party where the cream of Harlem are playing jazz and dancing. By this time many White people, knowing that all the best and most innovative Jazz is coming out of Harlem (like The Cotton Club), were frequent visitors. Irene is standing next to a famous gay photographer (Bill Camp being deliciously, well, camp) who is modeled on the photographer Carl Van Vechten. Her astute and witty observations give us a window into a different Irene, an Irene who, in another time, could have been a writer for Vanity Fair or The New Yorker.
Claire vs. Irene.
Although it’s Negga who gets all the of the film’s high points, it’s really Thompson’s story. We see the film through Irene’s eyes and Thompson is devastatingly good. And we gradually realize that Claire and Irene are different sides of the same coin: both are exemplars of the fact that it is often the things that you give up as you claw your way up life’s ladder that turn out to be most important.
Hall’s screenplay removes some of the opening chapters of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel which streamlines the story and her direction never falters on the way to its ferocious and ambiguous ending. Essential Viewing.