Passing: A lot of discussion on race is done in passing …

Movie Review

My exposure to the issues of race did not begin in earnest until I started living in the United States in 1980.  Growing up in St Thomas, Virgin Islands I saw whites either at the hotels my father worked at or downtown when the cruise ships came in and whites hit the jewelry and liquor stores on Main Street.  Virgin Islanders of African descent were approximately 85% of the population in the 60s and 70s.  The whites that lived on St Thomas mostly attended private school and the only time I engaged with white children for extended periods of time was when they played on the opposing varsity flag football. 

I was never exposed to the practice of passing by mixed race blacks.  Again, the Afro-Caribbean population was so prevalent that there was no need to pass.  On the contrary, the small population of descendants of France living in St Thomas had their own distinct dialect and accent and mostly married within their tribe. 

Anglo-Americans from the United States, again, kept to themselves and were not trying to pass in the Virgin Islands as Afro-Caribbean or even Anglo-Caribbean.

My recollection was that each group kept their lanes, but were at least cordial and in many instances friendly with each other in professional and social environments. 

Living in the U.S. for forty-two years with 33 of those years living in the Southeast, I had already become familiar with the term, passing. But coming across the movie, Passing, which showcase two of my favorite actresses, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, I decided to take a chance on the treatment of this subject matter. 

The movie itself would have come off very flat were it not for the excellent performances of Ms Thompson, Ms Negga, Andre Holland, Bill Camp, and Alexander Skarsgard. The shots were two-dimensional and I was disappointed by the camera work’s failure to generate for any physical depth.

The actors, however, made up for the less than significant camera work.  The scenes involving the five aforementioned actors had me asking who these people really were; what were their concerns; what were their secrets.

I cannot say that the film explored in any great depth the reasons a black person would want to pass for white.  The crux of the discussion was literally done in passing between either Irene and Hugh or Irene and Clare.  I did gather from ‘Clare’ that she yearned for home, to get back to her culture and roots.  That desire for home did seem stronger than the desire to continue passing for white.

Is it so much better on the other side of the race pond that anyone would risk, like ‘Clare’ to have their true identity exposed?

In 2022 given the political awareness and the economic and financial opportunities blacks now enjoy, relatively speaking, I don’t see the need for anyone to “pass” unless there is some deep-seated emotional need or trauma that has to be addressed. 

In the end, Clare’s demise was likely the inability to reconcile who she was as a black woman with the supposed benefits she may have believed white life has to offer.

Alton Drew

12 June 2022