Manhattan, 1920s. We start in a toy shop, where 2 old women are trying to buy a golliwog (which they call a “picaninny”). A younger woman leaves the shop, hails down a cab and asks the driver to take her somewhere less hot. He drops her off at one of those posh hotel restaurants where you can order tea and sit around looking superior. The sort of place that in Manhattan in the 1920s was whites only.
She gradually notices that the blonde woman on an opposite table is staring her. The woman gets up and approaches her. “Don’t I know you?” “I’d find that highly unlikely”. “But aren’t you Reenie?” After a while, the penny suddenly drops. The woman is Clare, an old school friend. And although both are very pale skinned and can pass for white, they’re not from Manhattan but down the road in Harlem, where Black people live.
Clare invites Reenie (now known as Irene) back to her home. Reenie/Irene isn’t sure about this, but goes anyway. While they are chatting, Clare’s husband comes home. He tells Reenie that his pet name for Clare is “Nig”. Although she was white as snow when they first met, her skin seems to be getting darker, or as he charmingly says, “more like a nigger”. “Do you not like coloured people?”, asks Irene politely. “Oh no”, he says, “I hate them … And Clare hates them even more than I do”.
Irene hurriedly returns to her husband, Brian – a doctor, who most definitely does not “pass” – and their two boys. Irene tries to protect her sons from the racism of the outside world, while Brian wants to talk to them about the reality of lynchings. He has had enough of the US’s racism and wants to leave. Meanwhile, they have a dark-skinned maid Zulena, with whom Irene plays out a possibly unconscious power game.
Clare enters Irene and Brian’s social circle, and both of them seem to be a little bit too attracted to her. The already tense relationship between Irene and Brian is muddied by their respective petty jealousies. Then Clare’s racist husband sees Irene in town with a Black friend, and realises what is going on. From here on, it can only end in tears.
Passing is filmed in black and white because, you know, and shot in a 4:3 ratio, because if its good enough for The Lighthouse… Both effects are surely purposeful, but I’m not sure that either really enhances the story told, although the monochrome photography is often strangely beautiful. It also adds to the feeling that this is a film that is pretty to watch but has less to say than it thinks it does.
Passing addresses some weighty subjects with a degree of thoughtfulness that alone is reason for you to go and see it. And yet I wasn’t really sure about certain aspects. First there is how the film treats class. At first the treatment is very serious. When Irene sees Clare and Zulena chatting in the garden, her face shows an inability to comprehend how you can treat the staff which such friendliness. Irene may be a victim of racism, but she clearly has her own privileges.
And yet as we increasingly see thing through Irene’s POV, and the story increasingly becomes one of her personal tragedy, the issue of class recedes into the background. We are seduced into thinking that the endless trip from charity ball to charity ball is perfectly natural, and that the proper reaction to a trauma is to drop an expensive china teapot to the floor.
This isn’t just a petty criticism – I think that Irene’s high status means that the film has less jeopardy. The subject of the film is how much more Black people in the 1920s could attain by passing as white, and yet Irene’s current lifestyle doesn’t seem so bad. Clare has passed to the other side, but it is unclear why and what she has gained by marrying a racist.
On top of this, after a brisk and interesting start, the longer the film continues the more it starts to plod. This is not helped by us being trapped in Irene’s solipsistic world. Right at the end, the film hurries up into a rushed and unsatisfying ending that does not fully seem to fit with the rest of the picture. It starts by promising much, but ends up as being disappointingly insubstantial.
Passing is an ambitious film which deserves a watch. But too often it fails to realise these ambitions. It raises pertinent questions which it then singularly fails to answer. It looks good, but nice filming does not cover over the cracks of an insubstantial story. Maybe Nella Larsen’s novel, on which it is based, is more substantial. I hope so.