When Irene (Thompson) was in Harlem, she was Black. When he’s not in his hometown shopping for gifts for his son at the toy store, he lowers his hat over his forehead and covers his hair – he’s passing. He did it primarily for convenience and not very often; otherwise, he is proud of his identity.
Her husband is black, her son is black, and she is on the planning committee with a woman for the Negro Welfare League. He left the toy store and went to the Drayton Hotel cafe on a hot day for a cold drink. The room was dazzling white in the lighting and customers, but nothing flickered. It was the 1920’s.
Nobody but Claire (Nega), a friend from Harlem years ago:
Who greets you warmly and calls you “Rini”. They catch up a bit: Irene is still in Harlem, her husband is a doctor, she is a happy mother. Claire visits Chicago. Her husband is rich. She doesn’t like to carry her daughter because she is afraid that the baby will be born with dark skin.
Claire had been away for years, and her husband had no idea. You joke awkwardly and come to the topic of prejudice. Irene asks John (Alexander Skarsgård) directly if he doesn’t like black people. “No,” he replied, “I hate it.” And then, well, Irene left somehow.
Claire appeared at the door one day, annoyed by the lack of a reply letter. Weeks passed. Claire wrote a sincere letter to Irene, but she didn’t answer. It’s postmarked from New York, so it looks like he moved. Irene’s husband, Brian (Andre Holland), is often exhausted from work, family life.
And the cold attitude surrounding their marriage. They enjoyed a lovely house with a housemaid and partied with other middle-class friends in Haarlem. He and Irene talk openly and discuss what makes a person “happy, free, and safe”.
They have a complex friendship – and it’s a friendship that becomes even more complex. When Claire becomes a regular, being invited to her social gatherings, dance and bridge games, and family dinners, something like a third wheel in their marriage. Irene and Claire are strong women, wives and mothers, black with white. Where is your place in America, in this world?
It’s easy to see that Thompson gets a nomination for Best Actress, and Nega gets the nod of support when it’s time for the Oscars. There are so many social, political, racial and interpersonal subtexts in their dialogues and performances that it is impossible to say that one actress is better.
The race is a social construct and rarely more than Passing:
It explained in detail the critical context of Irene and Claire’s identities. Notice how the intense lighting in the hotel cafe seems to lighten your skin tone and how the cosy confines of Irene’s house in Haarlem seem to darken it. But this story isn’t entirely rooted in racial identity – marriage, motherhood.
And parenting are treated universally but are also terms specifically for black experiences. One of the barriers between Brian and Irene is how they explain their son’s world; he reads them notes on lynching in the south while he insists on defending his precious innocence for only a short time.
Another is his participation in the Negro Welfare League, which takes a fair amount of time – time that would be free for someone not involved in racial dispossession – and Brian feels neglected. “What about that nigger?” she asked, moving her hand to her thigh.
The contrast between the characters of Claire and Irene is the key to the dynamic. The film eschews the typical narrative and positions Claire as the more jealous of the two; Irene doesn’t want to be as white as Claire to return to black society, and her frequent trips to Haarlem are at significant risk. Thompson’s accomplishment was the reduced level of insanity that stemmed from multiple sources of stress: their doomed marriage.
A white friend and famous writer (played by Bill Kemp) whose visit to Haarlem he considers nothing more than tourism. With the cruel outside world encroaching on their children, Claire might encroach on Brian, who seems to have taken over this woman’s brilliance. And his inability to acknowledge the increasing romantic tension he is experiencing with Clare. A major storm was brewing beneath the Passing surface, and it was only a matter of time before it broke.