Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Netflix film, Passing marks the directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall. The title symbolizes a bleak judgment of white people who flaunts their power to “pass” a person as black or white.
To add an extra layer to the already rich narrative, Rebecca Hall captures the scenes in monochrome. It is probably to depict that in a prejudiced society, the ruling men “pass” their judgment based on two prominent shades. There is little consideration for the “gray” or mixed-race people.
Irene and Clare, the two main characters in the film are mixed-race black women who pass as white due to their European appearance. In a land divided between two races, these two women struggle to find their definitive grounds. The film, therefore, explores the themes of identity, racism, and existentialism.
‘Passing’ Plot Summary
Passing begins with Irene “Rene” Redfield (Tessa Thompson) strolling down the streets of New York in the 1920s. Irene is a black woman with a European appearance and thus “passes” as white. A nervous and anxious Irene enters the white parts of New York and witnesses the city’s summer heat.
While exploring, Irene helps a white woman, who perceives her to be white and compliments her nature. As if there is more to a person than meets the eye. Irene enters The Drayton Hotel for a cup of tea and, out of the blue, comes across a childhood friend, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga).
The two friends meet after 12 long years and quickly share the beautiful moments of their lives. Clare tells Irene that she is married to a white businessman, John (Alexander Skarsgard). The couple has a daughter named Margery and lives in Chicago. Irene tells her friend that she has two young boys, Theodore and Junior, and is married to a doctor, Brian Redfield (André Holland).
Clare invites Irene to her suite to cherish their childhood memories. In a conversation about kids, Clare informs Irene that she hasn’t told her husband about her black ancestry. After her father died, her white aunts took her in, and when she turned 18, she married John.
Suddenly John enters the room and meets Irene. John believes Irene is a white woman due to her European look and thus treats her with respect. In a funny tone, John tells Irene that when he married Clare, she was white as a lily, but she seemed to be getting darker and darker as the years went by. Due to the fact, John gave her a nickname, “Nig.” Irene laughs in the most symbolic sense. Irene asks John if she dislikes the black people. He corrects Irene and says, “I Hate Them.” Irene quickly understands why Clare hid her real identity from her husband and why she is living a fake life.
A quite shaken and emotionally drained, Irene returns to her house in Harlem and decides never to meet Clare again. However, Clare sends a letter to Irene’s house a few weeks later and slowly breaks into her life. Irene can perceive that her friend’s presence is ruining her life, but she feels almost helpless.
Two lives Divided By Shades
Clare was beautiful, friendly, and charming. But she was also unhappy and unsatisfied. She fabricated her life with a false identity and a bunch of lies. In Irene, Clare saw a woman who was happy and satisfied with her own skin. Maybe Clare was envious, or maybe she wanted to live a carefree and unpretentious life like Irene.
When Irene didn’t respond to Clare’s letter, she came to Harlem looking for her. Irene tried to warn Clare about her visit as she already knew about John’s bigotry. But Clare was ready to take a chance. She invited herself to Irene’s Negro Welfare League Dance event and met her close friends. She played the victim’s card and captivated Irene’s husband, Brian. Irene could sense an ongoing affair between them yet tried hard to overlook it.
When Clare was not around, Brian would often talk about the race problem in the country. Through the conversations, he always tried to persuade Irene to leave the country and settle somewhere else, like Brazil. However, Irene never intended to leave. During an argument, she commented that Brian acted a lot less content when Clare was not around. It was as if Clare’s presence fulfilled him.
After that argument, Irene felt emotionally drained. She could predict a crack in her marriage that was also depicted by a crack on the ceiling through Irene’s POV.
‘Passing’ Ending Explained
Irene was convinced that Brian was having an affair with Clare, and thus she distanced herself from both of them. During the Christmas season, Irene went shopping with Felise Freeland (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy). She encountered John on the street, who greeted Irene and stared at her black friend (Felise). Irene ignored John’s look, pretending not to know him, and walked ahead.
Irene believed that John saw her with a visibly black woman and might try to connect the dots. She feared that John might suspect Clare’s secret identity and that the revelations would ruin their marriage. Irene immediately tried to call Clare to warn her but suddenly changed her mind.
Later that evening, Brian and Irene attended a party with Clare at Dave Freedland’s place. Dave’s apartment was on the sixth floor, and while climbing the stairs, Irene asked Clare what she would do if John found out about her secret escapes to black people’s party. Clare said without a thought that she would leave him and come to Harlem to live with Irene. At this pivotal statement, Irene held back the fact that John already suspected Clare’s identity. She believed that after Clare’s divorce, Clare would use the victim’s card again and steal her husband permanently.
During the party, John arrived at Dave’s apartment, looking for Clare. John revealed that he had already been to the Redfield’s house and knew Clare’s secret. Clare walked towards Irene, who was standing near an open window. She looked at Irene as if she would protect her.
John accused Clare of being a dirty liar and rushed towards her. Irene tried to protect Clare from John and pushed her back in a reflex. Accidentally, Irene pushed Clare out of the window.
When Clare visited Irene’s house for the first time, she accidentally dropped a flower pot from the window. Clare asked whether she should go down. Symbolically, the scene hinted at the impending destruction Clare would bring in Irene’s life. And probably, it would end with a “fall.”
The fatal fall led to Clare’s tragic death. The police arrived at the scene, and Brian blamed John for pushing Clare. The officer asked Irene to verify, but she told the officer that Clare fell accidentally.
In the end of Passing, the officers believed that Clare died of an accident and thus left the scene with her dead body. The screen faded to white.
Passing is a 2021 Period Drama film directed by debut director Rebecca Hall. It is based on the novel of the same name written by Nella Larsen.