Watch: Passing

Two Black women who were friends as teenagers meet as adults and discover they have taken completely different paths to dealing with race discrimination in America. 

[Passing is rated PG-13 and available on Netflix.]

What Is It About?  Passing is based on a novel of the same name by Nella Larsen published in 1929.  It takes place in New York City in the 1920s, where two light-skinned Black women who were friends as teenagers meet again as adults.  They discover they have taken completely different paths to dealing with the harsh realities of race discrimination in America.   

Source: Netflix

The main character, Irene Redfield, lives in Harlem with her Black husband and two sons.  Because her husband is a doctor, she leads a comfortable and relatively high-status existence in the haven of upper middle class Black life and culture that was Harlem in the 1920s.  But she is haunted by the constant possibility of discrimination and violence against her family – and especially her growing sons – outside her small, protected neighborhood.  

Source: Netflix

Irene’s long-lost friend, Clare Bellew, is “passing” (living as) as a white woman and is married to a rich and racist white man who does not know about her Black heritage.  Clare travels frequently.  She stays for long stretches in New York’s fanciest hotels (where she runs into Irene by chance after many years), and she enjoys access to the best “white” stores and restaurants.  If her husband were to find out she is partially Black, she would lose all of this privilege for both herself and her daughter.  To keep her lifestyle, Clare has to lie constantly about who she really is, and she feels alienated from the Black part of herself and the Black community where she is most at home.   

Source: Netflix

The movie focuses on how Irene and Clare struggle to balance the love and empathy they have for each other against the envy and resentment each feels at how the other has chosen to live her life.  We see how the background of a racist society means that neither of them can be a completely fulfilled person.  It seems that they must choose either privilege, glamour, and safety, on the one hand, or true love, authenticity, and community, on the other hand.   

Why We Like It:  

  • Passing shines a light on the complicated and harmful ways racist ideas and practices encourage people – even people of color themselves – to discriminate against each other based on subtle degrees of lightness/darkness in skin color.  This has historically been an issue in Hispanic/Latino communities because we are made up of people with many different skin tones.
  • The cinematography (the artistic choices made by the movie’s director) is beautiful.  The movie is filmed in black and white as a reference to the movie’s theme of racial division and to the history of filmmaking during the 1920s (before the technology to make color movies was invented). 
  • The movie highlights the history of Harlem in the 1920s as a thriving neighborhood for Black professionals and its role in the development of jazz culture.