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Thursday July 7th 2022

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Movie Corner – Passing (★★★★★)

by Howard McQuitter II

From a cinematic viewpoint, the rich black and white, crisp shadows inside and outside brownstone houses as well as the inside intimate jazz sessions are excellent. Passing displays for subtlety blossoms on celluloid.

         Passing is Rebecca Hall’s debut film about two African American women, one is passing for white while the other is married to a dark-skinned Black man, at the time of the Harlem Renaissance when Black figures like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Jean Tommer, Claude McKay,

Augusta Savage, Aaron Douuglas, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Countee Cullen are on the scene particularly in Harlem.

          Passing is based on the novel by Nella Larsen, who comes from a mixed background, similar to Hall. Hall gets to the central characters immediately with Clare Kendry Bellew (Ruth Negga) and Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson). On one hot summer day sometime in the mid or late 1920s Irene, impeccably dressed and wearing a hat that partly obscures her face, enters a luxe white hotel. She’s uncomfortable sitting in a “whites only” hotel restaurant as she slowly turns her head by the gaze of a white woman sitting across from her. But there’s someone sitting several tables away who’s looking harder at Irene. It happens to be Clare. They’re high school friends from Chicago and haven’t seen each other in nearly a decade. Seeing Clare in New York City surprises Irene. Clare is passing for white and

married to a white man, John (Alexander Skarsgard), who doesn’t know he’s married to an African American, and is vehemently anti-black. (From my naked eye neither Clare nor Irene can pass for white.)

          However nervous Clare is about being “discovered” as a Negro by her white husband or other whites, she wants to be with her friend Irene at all costs. Like a breath of fresh air, Clare delights in being Black when she’s around Irene and her dark-skinned husband Brian (Andre Holland), a medical doctor by trade. All three go to the Black nightclubs listening to jazz swing music and having an occasional dance.

            Back at Irene and Brian’s house, Brian explains to his two young sons about some recent lynchings. Irene takes exception to her husband’s telling their sons about the lynchings (at least at their tender ages). Irene has just recently warned Clare what danger she can be if her true “racial identity” is

discovered.

         The uneasiness, the ever-present possibility of ostracization, the pretense of being white, the fear of being exposed for Black is the dominant theme in films such as Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949), John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) and the remark, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). Even Spike Lee’s drama-comedy-musical School Daze (1988) deals with the dark-skinned college students.

          A film like Passing makes me pause and reflect on my own blackness even though I’m dark-skinned and have no chance of passing for white. Rebecca Hall has created a timely and well directed film. And that she did the film in glaring black and white. As for the two major actresses, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, their performances are Oscar worthy.Director: Rebecca Hall. Screenwriters: Rebecca Hall and Nella Larsen. Cinematography: Eduard Grau. Original Music: Devante Hynes. Cast:Tessa Thompson (Irene), Ruth Negga (Clare), Andrè Holland (Brian), Alexander Skarsgård (John), Jutus Davis Graham (Ted), Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Felise), Stu S. Becker (Cabbie), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Dave), Ashley Ware Jenkins (Zulena). Production Companies: Significant Production, Picture Films, Flat Five Productions, Film4 Productions, Gamechanger Films, Sweet Tomato Films, Endeavor Content. Distributed by: Netflix. Running time: 98 minutes, (PG-13).

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