There is a dual nature to “Passing”, particularly concerning the color scheme of black and white that visually probes at stark contrasts between darkness and innocence, mystery and honesty, complexity and simplicity. Duality in cinema is often used to signify that two entities have opposing personalities, beliefs and desires. In modern cinema, one entity may be subject to conflicts within oneself in the realms of duality, pointing to the individual’s struggle with their inner opposing intentions and thoughts. Inner duality is everywhere from the classic “David and Lisa” (1962) to the modern mainstream Hulk. Oftentimes Hollywood plays off one character with multiple personalities (1957’s “The Three Faces of Eve” and 2016’s “Split”).
“Passing” has, at least, one thematic duality of human nature; light and dark. The film takes on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) – two childhood acquaintances – light-skinned Black women – who intentionally pass for White. (Historically, some pale-skinned African-Americans evaded racial oppressions by white-passing – changing their racial identity into White.) They ‘whiten’ their manners of living and social behavior (clothing, speech, and etiquette) while stripping off and, to some extent, repudiating their association with being Black. While Clare has spent her life passing as White since adolescence, Irene does it on occasion for her own amusement.
Light and dark metaphors are binary oppositions and have long been played out within a plethora of racial discourses. They are the gist of all tales that encompass racial differences and disparities. The proclivity to associate dark skin with negativism draws a parallel with associating it with immorality, violence, criminality and dangerousness. Clare’s racist husband John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgård) points out, “I read about them [black people] in the papers, of course. Terrible mess. Robbing. Killing. It’s sad really.”
Jacqui James from uua.org (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/5934.shtml) reflects on this:
“Blackmail, blacklist, black mark. Black Monday, black mood, black-hearted. Black plague, black mass, black market. Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black. We fear black cats, and the Dark Continent. But it’s okay to tell a white lie, lily-white hands are coveted, it’s great to be pure as the driven snow. Angels and brides wear white. Devil’s food cake is chocolate; angel’s food cake is white!”
Symbolic constructions of dark and light have engendered underlying patterns for social conventions as many of the frameworks of American racial and ethnic compositions are represented in binary terms of black and white paradigm.
That said, is ‘passing’ always a matter of survival? Or is it simply for one’s own convenience as Irene does? Or perhaps racial appreciation? Like understanding fluidity in sexuality and gender in contemporary narratives, understanding the notion that identity is changeable and malleable is of the utmost importance in this discussion.
Life is a compound of light and shadow, good and evil, just like light and dark exists in every room. As Irene contemplates at one point, “We’re, all of us, passing for something or the other, aren’t we?”
“Passing” is on Netflix now.