Between Belfast, C’mon C’mon, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and Passing, we’ve gotten a surprising number of black-and-white movies in 2021. I haven’t seen Macbeth, but Passing easily uses its black-and-white cinematography the best of the group. It follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), high school friends who unexpectedly reunite over a decade later. They are both Black, but with skin light enough that they can “pass” for being white. Thus, placing these characters in black-and-white photography allows their skin color to be somewhat manipulated in the picture. When they are around mostly white people, their surroundings are white, therefore making their skin look whiter. And the inverse is true for when they are around Black people. It’s a subtle, yet effective way to show how they fit in to multiple groups, but sadly don’t seem to completely fit or feel at home in either.
Unfortunately, the impressive visual work isn’t buttressed by a great story. I wanted to love Passing, but even in its short runtime, it tended to get lost in the weeds. The pacing was a bit off, and that is detrimental to a movie where so much is happening internally. Everything comes around by the end, and there’s a strong final shot, but the winding road to get to there hampers the overall experience. Though as a white man, I’m at a deficit being able to identify with this dilemma and can only learn from the film, for a Black person, and especially a Black person who can “pass,” the resonance with these characters will be at an entirely different level. In the end, I got a deeper understanding of an issue I’m not completely familiar with. And that’s always a huge plus.