‘Passing’ film screening and Q&A deepen conversations about race, identity and desire

On Feb. 24, the Pomona College English and Media Studies Departments hosted a screening of the 2021 film “Passing,” accompanied by a discussion with Pomona English professor Cherene Sherrard-Johnson and Pomona theater and dance professor Carolyn Ratteray. (Courtesy: Netflix)

One of the first things that you notice about “Passing” is the film’s silence. The first few beats of the film are eerily quiet, a far departure from the ever-present soundscape of many modern movies. This persists throughout, the silence as much a part of the film as its sets, costumes and characters. This stylistic choice foregrounds the movie with a sense of inescapable tension, as its characters grapple with pertinent questions of race, identity and desire. 

On Feb. 24, Pomona College’s departments of English and media studies hosted a screening of the film “Passing,” which was written and directed by Rebecca Hall based on Nessa Larson’s 1929 novel of the same name. “Passing” follows Claire Kendry (Ruth Negga) and Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), who are navigating life in 1920s New York City as Black women. While Irene is firmly entrenched in Harlem’s Black community, Claire is passing as white, married to her white husband, John Kendry (Alexander Skarsgård) and existing in white-only spaces. Thus, Claire’s life is a dangerous dance, in which she has to successfully present the facade of whiteness for survival.

This unravels, however, when Claire and Irene, who are childhood friends, reconnect. As Claire tries to rejoin the Black community, a series of events unfolds that destabilizes the very foundation of these two women’s lives, as internal and external forces conspire to change their worlds irreversibly. 

The film was followed by an enlightening discussion with Pomona English professor Cherene Sherrard-Johnson and theater and dance professor Carolyn Ratteray, helping the audience examine how the technical elements of film-making and acting enhanced the story. 

Both professors talked about how the film centered the Black family, positioning Blackness as aspirational — unusual for stories like this one. 

“It was just so refreshing to have a story about passing from a Black person’s perspective, where Blackness was the goal of what they were trying to get back, versus centering and celebrating the white space,” Ratteray said. “I can’t believe I had never heard of Nella Larson before. It’s such a shame what stories are not centered in dominant culture. Because if we had as many stories about folks trying to get back into Blackness, there would probably be a different understanding around the unfortunate tragedy of internalized racism.”

They also examined several technical aspects of the film, including its black and white cinematography. 

“I think it was an excellent choice. It puts us in the world; it puts us in the time,” Ratteray said. “It also smooths out the skin tones of the actresses, and if the film wasn’t in black and white, we wouldn’t have the ability to suspend our disbelief that these actresses could pass.” 

Another point of discussion emerged around the queer undertones of the film, as the relationship between Claire and Irene is constantly fraught with a sense of desire, whether this be construed as romantic or not. 

“In the time that Larson was writing, there was not a developed, sophisticated language around Black female sexuality — or around female sexuality at all. So, in some ways, this story is trying to give voice to what that could look like. And whether or not Irene has a desire to be Claire, a desire to actually inhabit her body or a romantic desire, is unclear. And I definitely think it can be either,” Sherrard-Johnson said.

The film navigates issues that often remain unexplored, speaking to the importance of the original novel in pushing cultural conversations forward. Hall’s willingness to bring this to screen in the modern day speaks to the enduring relevance of these issues, which should be addressed in the contemporary context. Some of the film’s pioneering storytelling comes from the setting and time period, which gives visibility to a part of the Black experience that often does not make it to the silver screen.

“How rare is it to see a period piece, with Black subjects, that’s not on a plantation, right?” Sherrard-Johnson said. “But here’s one, and it’s not a comedy. It’s very quiet. And there’s such a focus on intimacy, of showing the interiority of these characters and their lives.”

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