Passing ★★★★

Things aren't always what they seem.

I would say that this is another instance of festival hype having made me overly enthusiastic and perhaps less critical, although I will say, though my feelings may have softened upon revisiting, I do still think this is a very good movie. Although my premature declaration that this would be a major centerpiece of the award season conversation has proven, with time, to be laughably off-the-mark; so it goes.

While I don't renounce a single word of my praise for the film's masterful use of B&W photography, I do want to balance that out with a more critical look at the matter, which has sat in the back of my mind for some months now.

Namely, while I don't think the use of color is necessarily done lazily (far from it, as I discuss in some detail in my initial review), I do think the initial decision to make this black-and-white in the first place may have been misguided, no matter how well-executed the end result. On reflection, it's hard not to feel like this decision was made in large part to keep people from thinking too hard about the fact that Ruth Negga and especially Tessa Thompson - simply do not and could not pass for white.

This ends up being strange not just as a matter of suspension of disbelief, but because it takes the concept of passing and turns it into this vague abstraction, which never manages to feel quite real. This is a story which is about not just racism, but skin tone itself, and the choice to make it black-and-white draws attention away from the gradients of black skin that it's in actuality meant to be drawing attention to. Where the original novella goes out of its way to describe all the varying colors and shades of black, the film almost seems to not want you to think about that.

None of this is to say that the film necessarily fails in its racial commentary - there's quite a lot that it gets remarkably well, and there are fascinating nuances in the ways the characters interact, and what these interactions reveal about their perceptions (subconscious or otherwise) of the blackness of themselves and others. But one almost feels Rebecca Hall might have been more comfortable with a film about code-switching than white-passing, as the film as presented here often feels more focused on racial performance than blackness as a physical trait, and the impact those varying hues have in how one is perceived and treated.

Even still, while it may sometimes feel more like a film that's merely "about blackness" in an abstract, distanced way, rather than feeling like a "black film", as it were, it's still remarkably well-crafted, and everyone here brings their A-game to tell an interesting and thought-provoking story about a lesser-discussed aspect (in the mainstream, anyway) of navigating the minefields of racism.

➡️ 2021 Ranked

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