Adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Netflix’s new film centers on two black women, one of whom claims to be white; the other could pretend, but chooses not to.
DAVID BIANCULI, HTE:
It’s FRESH AIR. In the new movie “Passing”, based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga embody two old acquaintances who have very different attitudes towards their racial identity. The film, which is currently playing and premiering on Netflix on November 10, was written and directed by actress Rebecca Hall. Our general critic, John Powers, says Hall makes a story that may seem old-fashioned quiver of meaning.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: In 1982, Julie Dash directed a scathing short called “Illusions”. It starred Lonette McKee as an African-American woman who, passing for white, worked as an executive in Hollywood during World War II. Her war, she says, is not fought abroad. It is to ensure that the films finally show black lives in their human complexity. I think she would be thrilled with the new Netflix movie “Passing”, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 short story which, like “Illusions”, centers on a black woman who pretends to be white but also a woman who could do pretend but don’t. . Written and directed by British actress Rebecca Hall, this artistic and disturbing debut film ends with a hushed ending full of confusion and sadness.
Tessa Thompson plays Irene, the wife of a primitive doctor in the late 1920s in Harlem. One day, she takes advantage of her fair skin to go for tea at the top of a chic white hotel. There, she meets Clare – this is Ruth Negga – whom she had known in her youth. She learns that Clare, who has even lighter skin, has spent the past 12 years to pass, even marrying a successful white man played by Alexander Skarsgard. Upon meeting him, Irene is dismayed. He’s an outright racist who uses the N word. She can’t wait to get away from them. But Clare seems greedy for the black culture she lost by pretending to be white. She begins to creep into Irene’s life. Highly attractive but unmoored, Clare will do whatever it takes to be happy. His presence disconcerts the prudent Irene, who wonders if this intruder is having an affair with her husband, played by André Hollande. Meanwhile, one wonders if Irene, who hijacks her husband’s sexual overtures, isn’t herself attracted to Clare.
Here at a ball for the Negro Welfare League, Irene chats with her friend Hugh, nicely played by Bill Camp, a white writer interested in Harlem life. When she makes him take a close look at Clare, who is on the dance floor, he is surprised to understand the truth.
(EXCERPT FROM THE FILM, “PASSING”)
BILL CAMP: (Like Hugh) I’ll be damned.
TESSA THOMPSON: (Like Irene) No one can tell by looking at her.
CAMP: (like Hugh) No. The most surprising. Tell me, can you still tell the difference?
THOMPSON: (Like Irene) Oh, now you seem really ignorant.
CAMP: (like Hugh) No, no. I’m serious. Kinship feelings or something?
THOMPSON: (Like 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 a – a thing, a thing that can’t be recorded.
CAMP: (Like Hugh) Yeah. I understand what you mean, yet a lot of people pass by all the time.
THOMPSON: (Like Irene) It’s easy for a nigger to pass for white. I’m not sure it’s that easy for a white to pass for colored.
CAMP: (Like Hugh) I never thought about it.
THOMPSON: (as Irene) No, Hugh, why should you?
POWERS: It’s a nifty exchange, but this scene actually highlights a feature of the movie that requires some adjustment. While Hugh should be warned to notice that Clare isn’t white, to me and most people I’ve spoken to, Negga’s Clare just doesn’t look like he can get through. The problem isn’t its excellent performance, which has the slippery depths of a lake covered in thin ice; that’s how it looks.
Fortunately, the film is about more than just the rather dated idea of the passage. Hall is herself of mixed race. Her maternal grandfather was African American, and I imagine Larsen’s little book filled her mind with teasing assumptions. It certainly filled his film with cinematic ideas, from his dreamy change of focus to his jarring piano music. Returning to the cinematic style of the 1920s, Hall uses a small square frame to make the characters feel parked, even though the gorgeous black and white palette reminds us that even in a society defined by darkness and whiteness, the world is in. much of it is shades of gray. “Passing” is at its best for revealing twilight emotional conflict and not just for Clare, who wants the perks of being white but finds out the price of that ticket.
Here everyone goes one way or another. Irene’s husband is seen as a pillar of the Harlem community as he hates his patients and wants to flee American racism for Brazil. The writer Hugh comes across as an enlightened man, but his racial feelings are tinged with an exotic superiority. And then there is Irene, who presents herself to the world and often to herself as a good wife and mother, happy with her life in Harlem. Looking at Thompson’s layered performances, we realize things aren’t that simple. It also plays a role. In fact, the only person who doesn’t need to be successful is Clare’s husband, who appreciates the perks of being a rich, racist white man. He becomes who he really is. All of this, too, demands a terrible cost. Ultimately, “Passing” shows the multi-edged 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. not be black.
BIANCULI: John Powers reviewed the new movie “Passing”. On Monday’s show, filmmaker Edgar Wright. His films 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 the swinging London of the Sixties, where she lives the life of another woman. At first thrilling, the dreams become nightmares that haunt his waking hours. Hope you can join us.
(EXCERPT FROM THE SONG, “WISHIN ‘AND HOPIN'”)
DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying, planning and dreaming every night of its charms. It won’t put you in his arms. So if you are looking to find the love that you can share, all you have to do is hold it and kiss it …
The executive producer of BIANULLI: FRESH AIR is Danny Miller. Our main producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our Technical Director and Engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional technical 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 am David Bianculli.
(EXCERPT FROM THE SONG, “WISHIN ‘AND HOPIN'”)
SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) … begin. It won’t put you in his ear. So if you think about how great true love is, all you have to do is hold it, kiss it, and hug it …
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