Passing Parent Guide
The film's black and white cinematography both reveals and conceals, reducing all skin tones to shades of grey and emphasizing the racial ambiguity of the story.
Parent Movie Review
“Passing.” It’s a simple word for turning your back on your family, history, and culture. But for many Americans of color, passing was an escape from a world of bigotry, violence, discrimination, and poverty. If their skin was light enough and their features “white” enough, they could pretend to be white and enjoy the privileges that came with that racial identity.
When Irene discovers that a friend she hasn’t seen for years is passing for white, she’s shocked, offended, and fascinated. It’s the 1920s and Irene is living in Harlem with her physician husband and two sons. After a hot day’s shopping, she runs into Clare, an old school friend, who is passing as white. Married to the highly bigoted John Bewlew, Clare enjoys the financial benefits that come with being the wife of a banker. As the women get caught up, they both insist that they each have “everything I’ve ever wanted”.
Real life is more complicated. Clare is determined to renew their friendship, and as the women spend more time together, their regrets, insecurities, and jealousies seep into their relationship. Clare envies Irene’s “true, good life” but Irene counters that “no one is ever completely happy, free or safe.” The more time she spends with Clare, the clearer that becomes to her: not because of Clare’s choice to pass, but because of Clare’s determination to insert herself more deeply into Irene’s life…
This is a tense story, burrowing into the fears and insecurities of both women. The tension ramps up when Clare confesses, “I don’t have proper morals or a sense of duty like you…To get the things I want so badly, I’d do anything. Hurt anyone. Throw anything away.” A sense of impending tragedy comes into sharp relief, and never lets up.
Passing is a ravishing, brilliant film. Shot in black and white, it’s beautiful to look at, and mysterious as well, alternately revealing and concealing. Critically, the film reduces all skin tones to shades of grey, emphasizing the sense of racial fluidity in the story. The soundtrack is also well done, with ambient noise somehow setting the story on edge and gentle jazz creating a sense of dreamy disconnection. Director and screenwriter Rebecca Hall has pulled off a real feat, successfully adapting a book that is both a tale of racial conflict and a whodunit. The adaptation is clean and crisp, while also maintaining the sense of ambiguity that is so critical to the overall story.
Parents or teachers considering Passing for viewing with teens can be assured that there is little on-screen violence (aside from a fatal fall) or sexual content and just over a dozen mild profanities. There are frequent scenes of alcohol use and smoking, but the activity is not glamorized. The PG-13 rating is appropriately applied.
This movie has a lot to offer audiences. Film buffs will swoon over its gorgeous production values which will likely impress casual viewers too. Moviegoers who want to think about the complexities of racial identity and the persistence of racial discrimination will find much to contemplate here. And anyone who enjoys a whodunit will love the debate that will consume their movie watching buddies after the conclusion. This is not a film that provides simple answers or easy categories but it is a great catalyst for lots of questions – and isn’t that one of the best reasons to go to the movies?Directed by Rebecca Hall. Starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga. Running time: 98 minutes. Theatrical release November 10, 2021. Updated September 23, 2022
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Rating & Content Info
Why is Passing rated PG-13? Passing is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for thematic material, some racial slurs and smoking
Violence: Lynching is discussed on a few occasions. A person falls from a high window and the dead body is seen on the ground.
Sexual Content: A man and woman kiss in a restaurant. A woman passionately kisses her husband. Parents discuss the sex education of their children. A married couple kiss in bed.
Profanity: There are repeated racial slurs aimed at Black characters. There are also five terms of deity, nine minor swear words, and two anatomical terms in the film.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Main characters smoke cigarettes. Women put alcohol in their tea and in soft drinks. People drink alcohol at a parties. A character takes some kind of medication; likely a sedative.
Page last updated September 23, 2022
Passing Parents' Guide
Irene says, “We’re all of us passing for something or other.” Do you think that’s accurate? Have you ever pretended to be something you’re not? Why? What were the results of that decision?
Why did people choose to “pass” as white? What price did they and their families have to pay? Why do people still try to pass? At what cost?
The New York Times: The Secret Toll of Racial Ambiguity
Loved this movie? Try these books…
This movie is based on Passing, a novel by Nella Larsen, whose own biracial heritage influenced her life.
In White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing, author Gail Lukasik examines her mother’s decision to pass as white and explores her family history in 18th century Louisiana. In a similar vein, Bliss Broyard learns that her father spent his life passing as white and ignoring his extended family. Determined to learn more about her roots, Bliss Broyard searched out her father’s past, resulting in One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets. For a broader exploration of passing, you can read A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs.
Related home video titles:
Viewers who are interested in learning more about the racial environment that made passing an attractive option have lots to choose from. Mississippi Burning shows the violence that was meted out to Black citizens who tried to stand up for their rights. In Selma, African Americans band together in the civil rights movement to claim equal rights. The documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble gives audiences an overview of the life of a man who worked to change America from street protests to the House of Representatives.
There are plenty of movies about people pretending to be someone they’re not. Young viewers will enjoy the classic Disney movie, Aladdin, with the “street rat” pretending to be a prince so he can woo the sultan’s daughter. In Mulan, a young woman cuts off her hair and pretends to be a man so she can take her father’s place in the army. An employment counselor and presidential impersonator is persuaded to pretend to be the president for real in Dave. A young man becomes a forger and impersonator in Catch Me If You Can and becomes a key target for the FBI. A faked resume gives a woman a glamorous job in Second Act. But even as she enjoys the rewards of her intelligence and hard work, she struggles with what she’s given up.