It’s one of those titles that both connects time and creates change: Passing the baton, passing as someone you are not, or someone else whom you aspire to be.
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This beautiful, haunting work, a debut film from writer-director Rebecca Hall, is comparable to visiting a cave full of glistening stalactites and stalagmites which have grown twistingly in the dark; the further you journey into the mountain, holding your light to the rockface, the more you see, layer upon layer of solidified slow drops of time. The baton of the great classic filmmakers of a Hollywood concerned with the clash of social injustice and entitlement has been truly passed on here. The story of “Passing” is a simple one which belies its complexity: what does it mean to be able to “pass off as white” in early 20th century America where segregation beats a heavy drum? The visual evidence of “ghettoised” communities in the cosmopolitan New York City of the 1920s is evident and depicted in the film by “Black” Harlem, as opposed to “genteel” “White” society living far downtown, but this is not a period movie where we can distance ourselves from the past. I was reminded of an African woman who lived near me in Brixton, London in the 1990s; she crudely painted her face white and wore a blond wig. I believe she meant her appearance to disturb, to accuse.
The film is deceptively gorgeous and lush with wonderful period detail that surrounds a tremendous tautness and insecurity displayed by its main protagonists. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is tempted by the opportunity her lighter skin gives her to “pass” as “White.” In Irene’s hierarchical treatment of her maid, Zulena, a woman with darker skin than she, we clearly see the skewed fallout of slavery. Irene’s husband Brian, a hardworking physician, desires to move his wife and sons to South America to escape the rottenness of America’s dominant “White” racist culture. Irene’s reunion with school friend Clare (Ruth Negga) reveals a woman who, through her paler skin, has deceived her rich husband, John (Alexander Skarsgärd) into thinking that he has married a bona fide “white” woman. He laughs as he explains to a shocked Irene the nickname “Nig” he has given his wife, due to the inexplicable fact that she seems to become a shade darker every year. Paradoxically the deception that has gained Clare her “White Privilege” however, has only created a tremendous homesickness to be back amongst her “own people.” This tangle of desires can only lead one way, but it is a remarkable testament to the writing and directing of the film that though we might guess at its inevitable journey, the end destination still unpacks a shocking surprise.
Claire van Kampen is an internationally renowned composer, director and playwright. Her new play “White Swan” will be workshopped in collaboration with the Royal Ballet in the UK in July 2022.
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