“We’re, all of us, passing for one thing or another, aren’t we?”
BY NIC CROSARA, IMAGE BY NETFLIX © 2021
I’ve spent many cold evenings curled up watching old films. I find it to be a cosy, relaxing and nostalgic ritual. Unfortunately many of these comfort films rarely feature Black or queer characters (and when they do, the representation is often cringe). I was recommended Passing by someone I interviewed for the December issue of DIVA, who gushed about its beautiful black and white cinematography and the queer undertones. We both spoke about our desire for more period dramas depicting Black and queer characters. We have, after all, always been here. When Passing was released on Netflix I watched it immediately, with high expectations, all of which were exceeded.
[Spoilers ahead, read at your own discretion]
Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is an adaptation of the novella by Nella Larson of the same title. The film follows Irene Redfield (played by bisexual icon Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (played by Ruth Negga). Set in 1920s New York, these two women who were childhood friends bump into each other as adults and learn that they have much in common. They are both married, mothers and both are mixed-race but there is a huge contrast between the two women. Clare “passes” as a white woman and lives with her racist husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård). In doing so, Clare gains some privileges, but there is a cost. She despises her husband and deeply misses being around Black people and the life she left behind.
Whilst queerness in Passing is not explicit, there is a tense sense of desire between the two women throughout. Clare is “in the closet” when it comes to her race, but viewers will be left wondering whether both of these women are repressing their true feelings towards each other. The book which the film is based on has been analysed in a similar way and gender theorist Judith Butler even wrote an essay about this very topic.
In an interview with Los Angeles Times, Tessa addressed the themes of sexuality: “Passing to me is as much about ‘passing’ for any of the norms, and I think the book is talking about the performance of gender and sexuality to be sure”. Ruth added, “Now that sexuality is being acknowledged as being more fluid and talked about in less restrictive terms, I think we’re acknowledging what has always been there. There are levels of attraction in relationships that are not black and white”.
Over the last few years we’ve seen a rise in period dramas, such as Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and The Favourite, which feature queer women and the female gaze. Passing conveys sexuality in a much subtler way, but it utilises the female gaze expertly. The film is filled with scenes of the two women observing each other, most memorably in a scene where Irene is watching Clare from behind as people dance around them. The camera pans slowly down her body before landing on her hand, which Irene reaches out to hold before pulling away when Irene’s husband, Brian (André Holland), approaches. This scene gives the impression that Irene desires to dance with Clare if it were proper. There are also plenty of scenes where Irene rambles to her husband about her fascination with Clare and in one scene Brian expresses feeling like he’s playing second fiddle to Clare.
This gorgeously filmed movie is full of strong performances by Tessa, Ruth and the rest of the cast. It tackles racism, colourism, identity and desire in a really interesting way whilst allowing many viewers to see themselves portrayed in a multidimensional way in this type of film for the very first time. I look forward to seeing future works by Rebecca and hope for more Black queer period dramas very soon.
Passing is available to stream now on Netflix
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