Passing (2021)

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“Passing” refers to a person being perceived as something they’re not, and historically this has meant someone being seen as “white” when they’re not. The term is also used in the queer community to mean being seen as straight or seen as one gender when they were assigned a different gender at birth. Sometimes, passing is thought of as the safer or easier choice, and sometimes it’s considered a betrayal. The subject is complicated and nuanced, and the movie Passing (2021) takes this on in adapting Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel.

The film hews closely to the story of the novel, even using similar 1920s language, but I don’t want to give much away of the story because it’s really enjoyable to watch unfold. While this is definitely about two Black women and about their relationship with the Black community (there are barely any white characters at all), it’s also about these two women’s relationship to each other. Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare are the entire movie, they fill the screen, they have almost all the dialog, and their faces carry all the emotion of the story.

Passing (2021)

Tessa Thompson as Irene.

Passing (2021)

Ruth Negga as Clare.

Director-writer Rebecca Hall has talked extensively in the press about how it took her a decade to get this movie made and how she was on a tight budget. Well, it doesn’t show because this is a beautiful movie! Filmed in black and white and in 4:3 perspective, these constraints mean that every little thing in the movie, from sets to costumes to the light to the music and, of course, the performances, are exquisitely on display. That, again, emphasizes that this story is about these two women, two Black women, who are living very different lives, and the contrasts between them are vivid because of the way the movie is constructed. Talking of how she made the film, Hall said in the Spool:

“This is a stylized movie, everyone is passing in this movie, including the movie itself; it has its own performance. And the shots are composed, I have storyboarded a shortlist of everything. The 4:3 is very restrictive. So if you don’t stay on your mark, you’re literally going to wander out of the frame. Everything is composed so specifically that sometimes you’re both in the same shot, and sometimes one of you is looking at the other and the other one isn’t. You can have these glimpses of how you are affecting each other on an unconscious level, underneath what you’re saying. So I’m going to be prescriptive about the blocking, and the shorts and the tempo, and the rhythm of the scene.”

The black-and-while film obviously emphasizes the racial aspect of the story, but some in the media have complained about the casting. Which Hall has addressed in the Washington Post:

“I hope that it does make you think about what we mean when we talk about race as a social construct. We throw that phrase around a lot, but we don’t necessarily know exactly what we’re saying.

It was tantamount to me to cast Black women in these roles. And not just to redress the fact that there have been other movies about passing that have centered White women who do not hold the entirety of that experience. But there’s a level beyond that. I was interested in having an audience that has a fixed idea of these women’s racial identity. So you’re sitting there going, ‘Is he not seeing what I’m seeing?’ It’s much more interesting to make it metaphorical.”

And in The Guardian, she said casting Thompson and Negga furthered the story:

“The most articulate way I can describe it is that if you’re in a Black family and a member leaves and crosses the colour line, you don’t ever see them as white, even if all the white people see it. And that’s the perspective that I wanted the audience to see it from.”

Nylah Burton in a Refinery 29 article summed up the ‘controversy,’ saying:

“Whether Thompson or Negga could pass is irrelevant; the irrelevance is the point of the book and is the very essence of “passing” itself. In my familial and social experience, white-passing Black people are not defined by how white or Black they look. They are defined by how they can, through varied means not at all limited to physical appearance, illuminate the fact that race is a delusion, thereby discomfiting and fascinating others. Those varied means can include the ability to codeswitch, their style aesthetic, the food they eat, and the company they keep. Their features are an important part of that, of course, but nothing is more powerful than the overall delusion.”

The film makes this powerfully clear, but in case you’re only seeing the reviews and trailers, it may be useful to go in with an understanding that the movie is purposefully made from a Black point of view and does not care if white viewers are made uncomfortable.

Passing (2021)

As I said, the tight budget for this film doesn’t show in the results, and the costumes designed by Marci Rodgers are not lacking. While she hasn’t done a ton of period costume films so far — her lauded designs for BlacKkKlansman (2018) were from the 1970s — Rodgers certainly has an eye for historical costume and puts in the work. She used some vintage clothing and according to the Hollywood Reporter, she had access to costume designer Ann Roth‘s personal stock of period pieces. Rodgers told Fashionista, “I do my research and make sure the costumes look as accurate as possible.” And in Town and Country, she elaborated:

“I am a type of customer designer who tries my best to design costumes based off of real people. I want it to feel real — even if somebody were to say, ‘Well, that doesn’t look like a trench coat to me,’ it actually looks like the trench coat of somebody who in the 1920s could have been walking down the street in Harlem.”

Passing (2021)

The level of detail is excellent throughout. For example, this coat with a printed border…

Passing (2021)

Matches the dress underneath (note the collar). It’s worn with coordinating hat, gloves, & jewelry.

Passing (2021)

The cloche has elegant 1920s details.

Of course, designing for a film shot in black and white presented a unique challenge, which Marci Rodgers was prepared for. In Cultured, she explained:

“When Rebecca [Hall, the director] said everything would be in black and white, it reminded me of a project I had to do at the University of Maryland. We had to emulate a series of Christian Lacroix’s drawings and I was the only person in the class who rendered them in black and white. I remember feeling annoyed that I wasn’t able to paint in color. But that’s why I feel like so much of my journey has been destined. With Passing the film is shot in black and white, but all the clothing is color. I had to shift my eyes to black and white. Certain things that are pretty in color are hideous in black and white. I kept laughing during the process and felt humbled because God seemed to have been using my old teacher to prepare me for that world.”

Passing (2021)

Compare these coats & hats worn by Irene & Clare in the film…

Passing (2021)

With this color behind-the-scenes image of the same outfits.

Passing (2021)

Irene wears this embroidered coat early on, where it’s barely visible onscreen.

Passing (2021)

And here’s the full view posted on Marci Rogers’ Instagram.

There are also personal references that Rodgers worked into the designs. As a Howard University alum, she was pleased to help André Holland flesh out his character Brian’s background as a doctor and Irene’s husband. In Town and Country, she provides this detail:

“One day on set I was talking to André Holland and I said to him, ‘What medical school do you think Brian went to?’ And he said, ‘That’s a really good question. I’m not sure.’ I’ve done period movies and it’s one thing to put a man in a suit, but it’s another thing to put a man in a suit and to have some details. I said, ‘What do you think about Howard University?’ and he said, ‘That’s a really good idea.’

Howard University is my undergraduate alma mater, so obviously I’m biased. I contacted a colleague of mine there at what felt like the 25th hour and he gave me a Howard University lapel pin, which I used on Brian in one of his changes. When I brought it to André to put on, I think he appreciated that because it underscored certain things, as to why his character was who he was. It helped us get a little bit deeper.”

Passing (2021)

The pin is visible on many of Brian’s suits.

Another personal touch references Rodgers’ sorority at Howard, which she mentions in a News24 article:

“When I first started design, I said that if I could insert my own background story into any actress’ costume, it would probably be pearls or pink and green because those were my sorority colours at Howard University (where Kamala Harris and I were actually initiated in the same chapter). So I will always try throw somebody into some pearls — it’s my way of giving back to the sorority that chose me to be a member and to carry on our legacy and tradition.”

Both Clare and Irene wear pearls at different points in this film, which is feels accurate to the period and suits the characters.

Passing (2021)

All of the accessories are well done here, especially the women’s hats. There are some amazing ’20s designs that make me suspect these hats are authentic, either that or Rodgers had a really excellent milliner on her staff.

Passing (2021)

Glam hat going to a party at the end of the movie.

Passing (2021)

Clara’s hat in the same scene.

The hair, too, is well done and shows the differences between the two main characters. The more conservative, restrained Irene wears her hair in a simple chignon at the back of her head, while the adventurous and free Clare has bobbed and bleached hair. Barbara Roman, Hair Department Head, told the Hollywood Reporter that of her work, “Period is actually my favorite.” But due to the tight budget of this film, she had only one wig for Clare, no backups, and had to maintain this one for the entire shoot.

Passing (2021)

 

 

 

Check out Passing on Netflix, if you haven’t already!

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

18 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I have started watching this and so far all is excellent. I like that it was filmed in black and white and when I first saw Irene I thought she might have been the women passing, because of how she carried herself. But I quickly realised that Clare was the one passing. Clare’s husband is a piece of work. Gotta finish.

    Reply
  2. M.E. Lawrence

    I really want to see this. Would anyone else nominate Ruth N. to play Josephine Baker? She’s one of the few performers I can think of who has that ’30s aura (and inherent elegance).

    OTT and speaking of elegance: I was in Brooklyn recently and went to the Dior exhibit and IT WAS FABULOUS: beautifully installed and full of couture-as-art and attendees of all ages and colors. (Quite a few of them were like me, a jeans and sweatshirt sort of person, but we were all entranced.) If any Frock Flickers are able to be in NYC before February 22, you must go: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/christian_dior (There are also short clips on YouTube.)

    Reply
  3. Addie

    I read Passing a few years ago and was blown away by it. I thought it was obscure enough and gay enough and challenging enough to the standard construct of race in the US that it didn’t ever occur to me that someone would be able to make this movie, even if they desperately wanted to. I’m so excited to watch it.

    I wrote a whole paper on the “Tragic M*latto” (not sure if it counts as a slur but I’d rather not risk it) and how often mixed-race and/or light-skinned passing characters were/are played by white people, and how the tragedy is that they could be white but won’t be accepted by white society. I also connected it to gender and sexual anxiety because Tragic M’s are usually female- frail victims that deserve to be a Victorian “angel of the house” but are denied their claim to white social circles by tragic tragic circumstances. (As opposed to darker skinned Black women, who are masculinized and by this metric don’t deserve protection or the chance to be dainty. This tracks right back to the literal dehumanization of enslaved Black women who had to prop up the Victorian angel of the house ideal by their hard manual labor, and how this was justified by framing them as masculine, not really capable of pain, or not fully human.). Male light-skinned and/or mixed race men are more often portrayed as sly, scheming or cruel because of the risk of passing men exerting real power and entering relationships with white women under false pretenses (compare the way the narrative treats the husband vs wife in Desiree’s Baby). In both cases they’re treated with shades of pity and disgust but never much empathy.

    “Passing” has tragedy in it, sure, but it’s much more about the relationship between the characters, how they navigate and utilize colorism and passing for their own reasons. The tragedy is that committed passing (as opposed to Irene briefly passing to go to a whites-only restaurant, where she re-meets Clare) means leaving behind everyone you knew and a lot of things that were part of your identity, and always being in performance mode. The book’s also gay AF so that affects my reading of it.

    Reply
    • Addie

      By “how the tragedy is that they could be white but won’t be accepted by white society” I mean that that’s how the story frames it. Usually mixed-race/passing stories written by white authors are about how sad it is that light-skinned mostly-European people are affected by one-drop rules, not that the hierarchy is bad to begin with.
      I’ve heard there was a recurring demonstration where abolitionists had a fake auction where they trotted out Black people starting with very dark-skinned people and then lighter and lighter until they were bringing out people with mostly-European ancestry who’d still legally count as Black, to the shock of the (white) audience. The implication being that it was horrifying for light-skinned, mostly-European people to be enslaved… but presumably it wasn’t as bad that darker-skinned people with all-or-mostly-African ancestry would be treated like chattel. Colorism, man.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      There’s a whole queer subtext in the film (& book) that I didn’t want to give away in my review — just hint at with that ‘definition.’ But yeah, there’s a lot of layers to this work, & I’m amazed at how much made it into the film!

      Reply
  4. Roxana

    I have a huge problem with the whole concept of ‘passing’. Why can’t you identify as white if you’re biracial, as almost all African Americans are to some degree. Why should society get to tell you who you really are?
    My grandfather was of mixed ancestry. For obvious reasons he chose to identify as white. I personally am whiter than Casper the Ghost. Am I ‘passing’too?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Passing isn’t determined by heritage or genetics — it’s a perception, an illusion. It’s a social construct like race itself. This movie (& the book) examine the concept from two distinct sides, which may be more helpful to explain to you.

      Reply
      • Roxana

        I guess I agree with this movie then. Defining people by the melanin in their skin is as stupid as defining them according to who they prefer as sex partners.

        Reply
  5. Cheryl from Maryland

    I’m fascinated by the comparison of the outfits in b/w and in color (especially Ms. Thompson’s red shirt/plaid coat/pink hat and how well it reads as b/w). When I worked for a museum, especially in the days of newspapers having few color images, I would always photocopy potential publicity stills in b/w so the press packets had images which worked well in both.

    Reply
  6. SarahV

    Why is it that the 1920’s style still seem so Frickin’ FABULOUS 100 years later?!!? They’re not terribly revealing or clingy, but they are so sexy and feminine and chic.

    Reply
    • Frances Germeshausen

      Maybe because it was the most original thing to happen in fashion in, like, ever! I love/collect/wear 20s and agree 100%

      Reply
  7. Al Don

    I was quite taken with the film. I adore Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, and have enjoyed André Holland in everything I’ve seen him in.

    I think black and white was the only choice; I feel like it wouldn’t have the right feel otherwise. I did notice the shot choices are very claustrophobic. Period pieces shot in cities (especially American cities), regardless of the budget, tend to have tighter shots but here it is almost disquieting. All those directing choices add up to this underlying feeling of dread you feel throughout the film.

    Reply

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