So I watched Passing…
Nuance and subtlety are often things we don’t see enough of in modern cinema. Often, filmmakers beat you over the head with an idea or explain things ad nauseam. It can be frustrating because it stops you working things out your own and drains all room for interpretation from a film. However, sometimes a film can have too much nuance and leave things feeling a little vague.
Okay, basic plot: Irene (Tessa Thompson) is a black woman who lives in Harlem and has a happy life with her husband and two sons. One day, Irene runs into Clare (Ruth Negga) an old friend who she hasn’t seen in years. A fellow black woman herself, Clare’s light skin allows her the freedom of passing as white. Although this ability to pass has granted Clare an enjoyable life and wealthy husband, she longs to be her true self and enjoys engaging with Irene and her friends. Although initially happy to indulge Clare, Irene soon finds that their friendship poses a threat to her marriage and happiness.
As the closing credits of this film began floating up on screen and I began gathering my thoughts on it, I found myself feeling rather hollow. This is clearly a very intellectual film and one that inspired spirited debate between my wife and myself but I don’t think I’d describe it as an enjoyable film. Too much was left open for interpretation and Passing feels more like an extended trailer than a movie. I’m not someone who needs every story thread to be tied up in a neat, little bow or every dot connected; but I do need actions to have consequences and those consequences to advance the plot. Barring the opening and closing ten minutes of this movie, nothing seems to happen that has a consequence or any significance to the story.
Take the main premise of this movie – the idea of someone black passing as white. It’s an idea that’s never explored or expanded on in any form. The why of it is pretty obvious but the how and the internal conflict and long-term effects that such a decision would have on a person are ignored. The idea is so sidelined that you wonder, firstly, why is the movie called Passing and, secondly, why is it introduced as a story element at all? You could substitute the secret of Clare passing with any other scandalous secret and it really wouldn’t have much effect on the plot. It’s such a disappointment because I was looking for insight into the phenomenon or at least a reflective pondering but didn’t get either at all. It’s such a wasted opportunity.
This is a common theme in this movie because there are a plethora of events in this film that either aren’t adequately explained or don’t have meaningful consequences. You’re left to infer far too much and told far too little. It’s far too nuanced for its own good and could have done with some more simplistic scenes where things are stated more plainly.
Now it all isn’t negative. I thoroughly enjoyed the acting in this film. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga do fantastic work. Their chemistry is palpable and almost electric at times. I also really enjoyed director – Rebecca Hall’s decision to film this in black and white. Aesthetically it worked because the contrast between dark and light skinned people was more apparent and further shows how passing would work. On a more metaphorical note, the black and white emphasized the binary nature in which the world was viewed at that time.
Overall, Passing feels like a movie that doesn’t quite live up to its potential. I enjoyed the nuance of the ending but wish the scenes leading up to it could have been a bit more plainly stated. 6/10