Tessa Thompson in Rebecca Hall's "Passing" on Netflix.

An Unmatched Film — “Passing”

There are films where a laugh can be a dagger meant for the audience, where what happens between characters takes place as much in the unsettled places in your soul as it does on the screen. There are films so precise in their complexity, with so much to say in so little a time, that they give it to you all at once as neatly as could be so that they can take days afterward unspooling in you. There are films that make you feel like you can’t take as deep a breath as you might need because the air’s let out through all the doors they’ve opened. There is Rebecca Hall’s “Passing”.

It’s 1929, midday. Irene is in a hotel dining room, wary someone might register she’s Black and doesn’t ‘belong’. Clare recognizes Irene and introduces herself. They used to go to school together. Clare is passing. Her husband thinks she’s white; everyone around her thinks she’s white. He mistakes Irene as white as well.

We’ll see Irene go back to Harlem, with a husband Brian and children who couldn’t pass as white. She’ll forget the encounter, for a time. To say anything more would be too much.

What I will say is that “Passing” has more tension loaded into its dialogue, its lingering black-and-white cinematography, its tightly wound editing, than just about any other film could dream. Wherever you think that initial premise would go only scrapes the surface. Whatever ideas you think “Passing” may engage, it spirals through so many intersecting layers – through race, feminism, socioeconomics, all without ever feeling like the film is anything other than a portal into the lives of characters who feel vitally real and consequential.

Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare give spellbinding performances that wind and wind until you’re very unsure who either really is, deep down as a person. There is so much suggestion, so much intimation in “Passing”. No word or look is wasted. A phrase might feel like a fever dream, a smile like an obscuring fog, a silence like an anchor, and yet it all comes together so naturally. “Passing” is described as a drama, but it conveys emotionally as a thriller, an old-fashioned one that requires and rewards patience.

The story in “Passing” is lean and tautly told, while the gestures of it feel like staring into the abyss and having no idea where to start measuring. If it feels like I’m being too poetic here or not pinning down what “Passing” is, it’s because it doesn’t feel like it has a limit, and something needs a limit to be described in full. If “Passing” has a limit, I haven’t reached it.

All this may make “Passing” sound experimental, and in some ways it treads there, but it’s hardly uncontained. It’s so tightly delivered, so compactly told, with no frills, not a wasted motion in sight, that it feels like a poem you can read in a minute and spend the rest of your life turning over. It contains in such an identifiable, digestible form a flood of meanings and evocations.

There’s an article rattling around in me that speaks to part of what “Passing” engages, from a Latino standpoint and context. That’s different from a Black-led conversation and context, but there are elements that are mirrored or shared. That article would tell you about the ways that whiteness can pervade. It would tell you about friends who married someone white and confessed that they breathed a sigh of relief when their children came out with light skin, when they knew their children could pass enough to dodge the bulk of abuse and violence they had known, and when they recognized the second after thinking this how completely and terrifyingly they had learned to practice the violence of racism within themselves, to hate what they are, to do the work of chasing out what little survives to make us who we are, to do the work of colonization and racism so ingrained in us that it’s half-done before racists even lift a finger. We do that work for free, willingly, echoing terror against ourselves, lessons drilled in across generations.

The number of people who have told me this makes me glad I don’t have children, makes me relieved I lack a part of my life I’ve always wanted. Look how that history of racism makes us happy to hate ourselves, that article would say. Look how they make us relieved to chase out anything that isn’t a copy of them, a begging plea to be accepted if we just commit that act of violence to self-mutilate our own image, our own value, our own uniqueness, to chase it out of mind, to eradicate it from our story.

That’s a lifetime of work to undo, and while it’s this subtle violence at the heart of “Passing”, it’s just one of many subtle violences the film speaks to, just one of the unfathomable, immeasurable violences that loom where we choose not to see them, and that “Passing” stares straight into. When a laugh feels like a dagger meant for the audience, you can’t help but wonder what it sees in you.

There are those pieces of art, those poems and paintings, those books, those films, those games that each build a house in who we are, that give us a comfort as we stare at that abyss of work knowing we’ll never see its end ourselves – there are those pieces of art that we know will accompany us from here on out. Whatever they see is something we desperately need to feel is shared, is recognized by others. It’s art that stores a piece of meaning in us, and in which we store a piece of ourselves. It opens doors in you that sometimes get jammed shut, that you need a piece of art to shake, to loose, to burst through.

I’ve said before that if you show me a perfect film, I’ll show you one that could have been more ambitious, more willing to be less than perfect in order to tackle more. I stand corrected.

You can watch “Passing” on Netflix.

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