Passing reveals pursuit of happiness, freedom and safety – District

Written by Sarah Elizabeth McVicker, Image courtesy of Netflix

When I was a few weeks old, my parents went to shop at a department store. A Black woman mistook my mother for my fathers maid while she was holding me. In grade school, my fellow students constantly asked me, What are you? This question taught me that people didnt know how to see me and this made me unsure of myself.

Although I am a light-skinned, biracial woman, it took me years to understand what passing was and how I could use it in my own life if I chose to. The film Passing posed a central question of what it means to be happy, safe and free.

Passing is Nella Larsens 1929 novella about two long lost friends who reconnect and experience the world differently through the act of passing as white. Director Rebecca Hall uses black and white cinematography to beautifully juxtapose both Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellews (Ruth Negga) world.

The act of passing is creating ambiguity.

For Irene, the idea or acceptance of passing isnt black or white but a mixture of the two. We see this from the very first sequence. Irene is uncomfortable with passing for fear of getting caught, but will use it when she feels it is necessary. The opposite can be said for Clare. For her, passing is a strict black and white. There is no right and there is no wrong. It just is. Clare enjoys the thrill and treats passing as a way of life and as a means for survival. This is not to say she is completely without some fear. She is married to John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgrd), a racist white man who is unaware of her ancestry.

As I grew up, I must have taken passing a bit too seriously and denied my heritage in a sense. One day, my godmother sat me down and said, Here watch this. This is how you act. She played the 1959 Imitation of Life to show me that my behavior was similar to the protagonist, Sarah Jane, who passes for white. At the time, it was hard for me to accept that I could act that way.

Passing is sometimes seen as a way of denying not only ones heritage, but themselves. Clare seemed to be so happy and free amongst Black people. She no longer had to pretend. This is why Clare craved to be around Irene, because she secretly wanted more freedom and happiness. Their relationship is truly a yin and yang where Clare is the bold free spirit and Irene is level-headed. It creates a balance between them. They need each other to feel happy, free and safe. I remember it wasnt until my second year of college that I finally felt happy in my skin, free in my thoughts and safe among the world because I had accepted both sides of my heritage.

Nella Larsens novel is at the peak of a hundred year anniversary and her story is still relevant today. Clare and Irene are living in a world where they are trying to achieve the happiness, freedom and security within themselves and the world they move through. Ruth Negga, Savannah Film Festivals Spotlight Award Honoree said, The act of passing is creating ambiguity. The passer may be unclear of who they are or where they truly fit in society or they may mold to the situation. On the other hand, they may be open and fluid to the idea of passing and accept all that comes along.

Passing has graciously opened the door for more understanding of these characters experiences and those alike in todays world who still choose to pass.

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Passing reveals pursuit of happiness, freedom and safety - District

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