Top 20 Films of 2021: #19- Passing

It’s almost hard to believe that we’re still just a humble seven years into the ascendance of Tessa Thompson. I remember going out on a date with my now-wife in 2014. The screening was at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater, and the film was director Justin Simien’s incisively funny debut satire Dear White People. I thought it was very good and my wife just about loved it. The Sundance splash was maybe too shaggy and small-scale to make a dent with many awards bodies, outside of some scattered and deserving Breakthrough and First Feature wins. But, even knowing that it would not come near Oscar, we felt buzzy about it walking out onto the street. What lingered with me was the sheer promise I had seen on screen that night. Justin Simien’s potential as a writer and director, for one. But even more instantly, lightning-in-a-bottle undeniable was the performance by Tessa Thompson. Beyond the dynamite performance, I felt like I had just come face to face with a real presence; a charismatic force. Thompson had been around for five years prior, unbeknownst to me, appearing in some well-regarded indie films and a Tyler Perry movie. But Dear White People was the moment her star arrived fully formed, and the seven-and-change years since then have been all about Tessa Thompson repeating her name ever louder for those in the back. Her impressive body of work already includes a role in acclaimed MLK drama Selma, HBO’s Westworld, and Alex Garland’s excellent science fiction horror tone poem Annihilation. She is subtle and spirited in all of those. Her early splashes with auteurs like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler earned her a high placement within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as Valkyrie), now a calling card for a great many respected screen actors. Above all that are three soulful, electrifyingly intelligent pieces of Oscar-caliber acting (never mind that the Academy tripped over its pigeon-toed clown feet to not honor any of them), the crown jewels in her tiara. The first two were tremendous supporting turns in Coogler’s Creed and in Boots Riley’s hilariously incendiary capitalism takedown Sorry To Bother You. Thompson is a great supporting player, but her magnificently complex lead work this year in Rebecca Hall’s debut film Passing should be a reminder that she is absolutely made to carry films, and great ones at that. The more succinct way to put it is that Tessa Thompson is a damned star. It takes a special kind of talent to give a performance this full of quiet grace notes while also giving it the potent, Hollywood-ready charge of a true A-lister to be.

But Passing is not all about Tessa Thompson. Let’s salute another of its brilliant female talents for a minute. Among its numerous qualities, 2021 will be remembered for some special debuts by actors turned directors. Joss Whedon’s career is effectively dead now, but one of his talented regular actors, Fran Kranz, stepped behind the camera to direct some terrific performances in the slightly heavy-handed Mass. And two extremely talented female actors, Maggie Gyllenhall and Rebecca Hall, surpassed all expectations with The Lost Daughter and Passing, respectively. Passing, based on Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name is the story of Irene Redfield, a comfortably affluent black woman living in New York City in the 1920s. On a sweltering day in the city, Irene walks into a fancy tearoom to escape the heat. The relatively light-skinned Irene hides most of her head beneath a lacey white hat. We can sense that she is moving furtively, discreetly through these spaces full of wealthy whites, not with any kind of shame but with full consciousness of the early 20th America she occupies. She does not draw attention to herself. Suddenly, she is not the only person of color sharing this tearoom. Another pale-skinned black woman, this one with blonde hair, is looking at her from the next table. She asks if they know each other. When Irene stammers and balks at the question, the woman laughs heartily and says, “Of course I know you, Reeny.” She reveals that she is Clare Gardner, a friend from childhood. They begin to catch up about life;  about their marriages. Irene is married to a black doctor in Harlem (very well-played by Moonlight‘s Andre Holland) and Clare is married to a white Chicago banker (Alexander Skarsgard, oily and ever so slightly menacing in just his handful of moments onscreen). Then Irene asks a very pointed question: “Does he know?” Clare shakes her head almost apologetically. Her life of relative privilege and happiness has meant hiding her existence as a black woman from her openly racist husband and passing as white. This makes Irene visibly uncomfortable, but she endures a much ruder shock when Clare’s husband walks into the room. He reveals that his pet name for Clare is Nig. Then he informs Irene, who he does not recognize as black, that Clare shares his uninformed hatred for black people. Irene returns shaken to her comfortable Harlem life, raising children and coordinating glitzy galas and charity events for the New York City Negro League. She tries to ignore the impassioned apology letters that arrive from Clare over the following weeks (though she snaps to Clare’s defense when her husband refers to Clare as crazy). But one day, Clare shows up in the flesh in Irene’s doorway. Little by little, they become part of each other’s lives again, though the uncomfortable nature of how Clare is living her life never really goes away for Irene. Irene is proudly and openly black and yet she has her own  ways of hiding her blackness or at least limiting it to certain forums. She is hesitant to discuss the more openly disgusting realities of American racism in front of her children, which rankles her husband. Passing is a gorgeous character study of two black women with very different approaches to moving through the insidious spaces of 1920s America, and how they both embrace one another and come into conflict. And it is a glimpse of an often idealized time in the nation’s history, seen through a lens of blackness that is all too rarely applied to it in popular American fiction.

One of the most refreshing qualities Passing has is that, in marrying pristine period trappings with a rich and nuanced story, it gives me the very happy opportunity to really wrap my arms around a period piece. It’s a chance that doesn’t come around as often as I’d like. Sometimes I’ll hear the more basic, prestige bait-taking movie-goer in my head (he had his heyday in the early 2000s and boy did he ever go in for Finding Neverland) accuse me of hateful bias toward all things period-based. Of looking at any lushly recreated period drama that comes along and dismissing it out of hand on the basis of historical handsomeness alone. Films like Inside Llewyn Davis, Terrence Davies’ Sunset SongThe Favourite, and If Beale Street Could Talk (among many others) give me the chance to set the record straight on my alleged period piece aversion. They give me proof that I am not automatically bound to be unmoved by historical recreations; to treat every period piece with the same indifference I feel for middlebrow prestige entries like The King’s Speech and The ReaderPassing was one of the year’s most bracing reminders that being transported to another time and place can be a transcendent experience if the director has a reason to take us there beyond temporal tourism. While Passing‘s subject matter is sober to its core, Rebecca Hall finds a jolt of energy in delving into this 1920s New York setting. This was the time and the place of the great Harlem Renaissance, a black artistic and cultural movement of more than a decade, which gave birth to brilliant works of literature (from such legends as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston), intellectual dialogues that would shape the coming Civil Rights Movement, and revolutions in music that still reverberate in just about every modern genre you can name. Rebecca Hall is a fine enough director to be able to distill something of the Harlem Renaissance’s passion, creative buzz, and intelligence into the filmmaking. Some of that comes through her crisp and thoughtful black-and-white cinematography (which puts that of a certain period Oscar contender to shame). Some of it comes through the strains of the great Devonte Hynes’ (known in modern musical circles as the R&B visionary, Blood Orange) wistfully breezy score. And a great deal of it comes from how she confidently fills these meticulously curated spaces with Nella Larsen’s sharp, poignant dialogue. The care put into the period detail shines because urgent, impassioned life is radiating through those spaces. The period aesthetic is important to the story, but never more important than the story itself.

The story itself is an unfortunately timely rumination on American attitudes toward race and success. It speaks to us from the 1920s about themes of racism and classism that are probably as old as American itself. It is of course a stinging indictment of our nation’s inherent racism, probably first and foremost, though a phrase like “first and foremost” feels cut and dried for a film as jazzily alive as Passing. Its greatness lies in how animated it is by literate discourse and sublime characterization. It is a considerably more conflicted story than what I was expecting. In a way that was not clear to me when I first read its raves out of Sundance, Passing takes what seems like a straight-forwardly bad decision (Clare’s choice to pass herself off as white) and complicates it. It is not that the film lets Clare off the hook for her decision per se. Nor would it be entirely accurate to say that no judgment is passed on Clare, for Irene is very openly judgmental and critical of her friend’s actions from the film’s earliest minutes. I guess it just has the kind of empathetic patience to only judge up to a point. And it never vilifies Clare, even as she increasingly becomes a source of frustration and mental turmoil for Irene. It is a credit to Nella Larsen’s lovely and subtly ornate dialogue (Clare sometimes has the saucy and playful pithiness of some classic Southern Belle character). And it is thanks, in no small part, to Ruth Negga giving what may be the performance of the year. It is not just that she imbues the character with a dynamic mixture of affection, brazenness, uncertainty, coquettish sass, intelligence, melancholy, and a host of other emotional nuances. It is also the paradoxical way she plays Clare as both an open book and as a secret that can never be fully uncovered. In the end, I think that is how Passing can take an action that understandably makes the bile rise in Irene’s throat, never entirely forgive its problematic nature, and yet allow Clare to remain understandable and heartbreakingly sympathetic. She is allowed to retain an air of mystery and we come to know and love her enough to feel that she should not be punished for what she is doing. That whatever Clare Gardner is going through, and has gone through up to this point, has given her enough pain and fear to deal with as to render easy proclamations of wrongness a little useless. For pity’s sake, with all that Clare manages to keep hidden about herself, there is never any question that she is torn up by what she must do to survive.

It’s also clear that no person would ever do what Clare is doing unless they absolutely felt they had to. It should be obvious before one even starts Passing that the antagonist of the film is not Clare Gardner, but her entire unthinkable set of circumstances. It becomes clear in the moments where Clare can let her disguise slip that she wishes she had Reeny’s confidence to be openly black. That she wishes her life’s path had been something closer to that of her friend and she could live fully as herself. When Clare first invites Reeny up to her hotel suite, she orders drinks from room service and you can hear some of the affected genteelness of her put-on white voice drop away bit by bit. She becomes louder, more playfully assertive, until the white mask seems to disappear completely for a moment. It is a moment of liberation and also of quiet sadness for Clare. But we felt a similar kind of sadness for Reeny too, during those opening moments of the film when she was floating quietly through predominantly white New York City with not another black face in sight, her head buried in that white hat like a deepsea diver’s helmet. What stands out in Passing is how lonely it is for both these women to live in this chapter of American history, and what a blessed relief it is for them to find each other in that vast white ocean. It is why, even though Reeny’s anger at Clare feels justified, you still want them to rekindle their friendship and hold onto each other. Passing is suffused with a feeling of frail human connection that does not erase the critical questions of whitewashing at its heart. What it does is free those questions from icy abstraction. the film’s images of black women navigating a hostile world recall the bruised humanity of Todd Hayne’s lesbian period masterpiece Carol. The society these women occupy is one where they must, on some level, exist undercover. Part of what complicates Reeny’s reckoning with her friend’s decision to pass is that she has also engaged in a form of passing. She has also had to find ways to mollify the racism and white prejudice around her. By aspiring to a more moneyed lifestyle. By courting white luminaries to her cause. And by shying away from frank discussions of racial barbarism, even in her own home. Passing is about the very different sorts of compromise two marginalized women choose to make in order to feel some version of whole.

Passing is finally a gorgeous film but a tough-minded one, in a way that respects the fine line between heartbreak and cruelty. I do not believe it ever tips crassly into the latter. Rebecca Hall’s stunning debut film loves its characters and wants the world for them. But it also knows that America has never been a place were things tend to work out ideally for people like Reeny and Clare. Just like a number of great American novels, it is a story about where people come from and about upward striving. It is about those small, mean things that try to fix some of us in place. It is about a country that has never stopped being stratified in almost every way that a country can think to slice itself up and cut itself off. By race, by class, by gender, and by sexual orientation. And it is a film about running from our pasts and ourselves. It is a beautiful story about trying to break free of trauma and toxicity to find one another. And it is sadly also about how those toxic things reform and reassert themselves to split us apart once more. It is a film with much of the sweet, soothing character of Americana but none of the facile, surface gloss that word connotes. It is honest to its core. It lives in the space between mournful and hopeful, between tenaciously vibrant and ominous. It lives in the 1920s and in a perpetual present that has yet to relinquish its tidal hold on us. It lives in the ceaseless past. It lives in the United States.

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