Smart Movie Review: Netflix’s ‘Passing’ a thoughtful adaptation of 1929 novel

Published 8:00 am Saturday, November 20, 2021

By Ian Omar Smart | Guest Columnist

Now playing on Netflix, Rebecca Hall, in her directorial debut, thoughtfully adapts the 1929 novel “Passing” — when a Black person is considered white in public — into an examination of race and identity.

Set in 1920s New York City, “Passing” begins with a wordless introduction to Irene “Reenie” Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) doing some shopping in a whites-only grocery store. She eventually catches the eye of her old friend Clare (played amazingly by Ruth Negga) which allows Reenie to finally open up. Feeling cut off from her Black heritage, Clare uses her friendship with Reenie to reintroduce herself to juke joints and smoke bars.

Initially liberated by meeting someone so like-minded, Reenie eventually resents Clare and the freedom she possesses to effortlessly “pass” between their two worlds. “Passing” becomes about the way Black people (and Black women in particular) gauge themselves and their reputations while living in a world that mostly prioritizes white people.

Thankfully, times have changed since the 1920s, but “Passing” shows how even now resentment can manifest when “white beauty” is the standard by which all other peoples are judged. That resentment culminates in a moment of violence that acts as a stand-in for the way people have historically stepped over one another to effectively “pass” in a world that has no room for them.

“Passing” subtlely explores how cultural norms passively define relationship boundaries and our expectations for them. The 99-minute film also stars Bill Camp, Andre Holland and Alexander Skarsgard, and is shot in gorgeous black and white.

Ian Omar Smart is a graduate of Warren Central High School and Mississippi State University with a degree in architecture. When he’s not drawing buildings, he’s probably at the movies. Smart can be contacted at isiansmart@gmail.com.