In almost every aspect, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing is a compelling and challenging film. And, at first glance, it’s about an experience that I — having spent much of my white, middle-class, American life largely insulated from an awareness of the struggles of my non-white neighbors — know almost nothing about. That is to say, it is not, for me, what so many people find essential in a movie: It isn’t “relatable.”

And that is exactly why I need it. Why I find it so absorbing. Why I am grateful for it.

Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in an illusory state of sophistication and denial. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
After all, it’s a movie that I’m sure many of my black- and brown-skinned neighbors would “relate to” very powerfully. And if I’m going to be a good neighbor, a faithful friend, and a fearless advocate for them — as a Christian, I am called to be all of those things — I need to know how these children of God experience the world. I’m learning as fast as I can, troubled by an increasing awareness of the deficiencies in my education. In recent years, some of my best mentors have been Black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, and Regina King, and Black authors like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Eula Biss.

Hall continues my overdue education by introducing me to a literary landmark: Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing. And she does so by crafting an adaptation with vision, artistry, and efficiency. Rather than merely turning a text into a screenplay so actors can play the characters, she crafts an impressively immersive experience of light and sound, cocooning viewers in the illusions of the main character: Irene Redfield (played with passion by Tessa Thompson). As we see the world through Irene’s eyes (the opening scene achieves this with an imaginative flourish of aural and visual strangeness), we start feeling her anxieties.  Then, layer by layer, the willful naïveté in which she has wrapped herself is gradually stripped away.

Irene is a sophisticated Harlem socialite who, married to a successful doctor (André Holland of Moonlight and High Flying Bird), she enjoys a greater measure of privilege than many Black Americans — most, actually. She finds purpose in her charity work for the Negro Welfare League, but she is nevertheless insistent on shielding her two young sons from the daily news of lynchings and other signs that racism is still an American epidemic. Despite her husband Brian’s increasing bewilderment over her refusal to face the truth, she wants to shelter her boys from disturbing realities.

Irene struggles to accept the compromises made by her friend Clare (Ruth Negga). [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
At least, that’s how she sustains a fragile sphere of peace and luxury. Irene enjoys her status — better than working class, with a black maid named Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins) — and her acquaintance with an acclaimed white author named Hugh (Bill Camp) for whom black lives “matter” only as material for his unnervingly voyeuristic research.

Such is the state of things as the movie begins. But, as I teach my fiction writing students, every narrative arc sets a stage precisely to that the stage can be disrupted. An “inciting incident” soon occurs. Sure enough, Irene’s illusory existence, in the first several minutes of the film, is shaken. She has an unexpected encounter with an old friend from school: the feisty and flirtatious Clare (Ruth Negga), who has learned to pass so successfully as a white woman that she has become “happily” married to a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who smilingly spews hatred for black people. What’s more — she’s the mother of his little girl.

And, true to that narrative arc formula, a chain reaction of greater disruptions ripple out from the initial strike. Irene meets Clare for tea and discovers, with increasing horror, the depth of her old friend’s deceptions. The charade has gone so far that Clare seems to be living in dangerous denial of just how thin the ice has become beneath her feet — to say nothing of what might happen to her daughter, should the truth come out.

So when Clare starts showing up at the Redfield house, charms their community of friends, inspires the admiration of the awestruck Hugh, and goes so far as to make Irene doubt her husband’s faithfulness, Irene’s anger and resentment grow… as does a fierce longing to live life as freely and fearlessly as Clare, crossing back and forth over those stark boundaries that she would like to imagine don’t actually exist.

As you can imagine, it does not go well.

Clare’s husband John makes no attempt to mask his hatred for African Americans. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
Hall’s decision to frame the film in a 3:4 aspect ratio is not just an “artsy” move but an effective strategy — in tandem with starkly shallow depth of field, and a sound design to match that keeps background noises blurry and abstract — so that our experience of Irene’s self-made isolation, her little bubble of identity and security in a world full of terrifying possibilities, is immersive.

And Tessa Thompson, who is quickly rising through the ranks of my favorite actresses, gives the finest performance I’ve yet seen from her. My suspension of disbelief wavers quite a bit whenever Negga’s Clare is onscreen. Negga’s a great actress, charismatic enough to be convincing, but — this is probably more my fault than the actress’s — I have some trouble believing she would have “passed” as easily and as successfully as we’re to believe Clare has. (So many fans have expressed shock that Rashida Jones is the daughter of Quincy, I can’t help but wonder what she might have done in the role.)

Still, so much else is working well that the Hitchcock-ian turns near the end drew me to the edge of my seat. (Watch for a fantastic sequence on a winding staircase that makes Irene’s disorientation dizzying.) As Irene’s peace of mind implodes, tragedy seems not so much an “if” but a “when” and “what kind?”

I am so glad I saw it on a big screen in a dark theatre. I wish everyone would. In a season of sprawling epics and extravagant spectacle, this is a quiet, focused film that knows exactly what it wants to be and efficiently achieves it.

Oh, look — it’s Chekov’s teapot! [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
But I doubt that many will see it at all, in spite of its accessibility on Netflix. It’s not the story’s tragic arc that will most likely keep those who need to see movies like this away. Rather, it’s the the fact that the film gives us such reverent, mindful attention to African American experiences. I’m seeing too many Americans try to whitewash their history — banning texts about America’s history of racism, making it illegal to teach children about slavery — even as right-wing evangelical populations support candidates who aggressively advance policies that increase risks for African Americans.

I have no doubt that many who have grown up white, American, and Christian will recoil from a movie like this, suspecting that it is part of some subversive “agenda” to make white moviegoers feel shame, or to teach some false and unpatriotic view of America. But the fact is that this is a truthful testimony: It exposes some of the symptoms that manifest wherever the disease of hatred is at work. It dramatizes how America’s failure to deliver on a promise of “liberty and justice for all” has driven some African Americans to embrace fantasy and denial merely to get through the day, while others shoulder the burden of demanding the respect and opportunities promised them.

I began this review by saying that the film seems, at first, unrelatable to me. My students sometimes respond to challenging art with frustration, and that’s the word they give me when I ask them why: “It’s unrelatable.”

But isn’t it one of art’s primary purposes to expand our experience, to challenge what we find familiar, to invite us into other experiences of the world? And isn’t it essential to the call of the Gospel that we engage our imaginations in the work of loving our neighbors?

If winding stairs like this one make you think of Vertigo, well… that’s a meaningful reference here. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]
I’m reminded of the words of the great Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark:

And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.

Is there a way I can connect with – or relate to — a story like this, having lived such a different experience?

I think so.

After all, I was enabled to live — even taught to live — in a way similar to Irene. In childhood, most of my associations with my African American neighbors came from the fact that I only ever saw them as happy and friendly characters on Sesame Street or as mug-shot suspects on the local news broadcasts, programs designed to entertain predominantly white audiences. I learned by example to ignore the ugly reality of racial violence around me. Just as Irene tells her husband to stop talking about the daily, front-page-news lynchings that are breaking his heart, I was taught to change the channel when public television showed me present-day protests over inequality. I knew the name Martin Luther King Jr., and I sensed some measured respect for him. But I was more familiar with a sense of grim disapproval for the occasional evening-news sight of Black Americans marching, waving signs, and shouting for change. This was treated as disruptive, as inconvenient, and — worst of all — as ungrateful. Instead of reckoning with reality, I was taught to look back admiringly at Abraham Lincoln, the good Christian who had “solved” the problem of slavery with his white-savior goodness. But I was deeply naive, and conditioned — in just the ways white supremacists would have wanted — to think that Black and brown-skinned Americans were less intelligent, more inclined to crime and violence than people like me, and not really part of “God’s country.”

Thus, the struggles of Black Americans remained only a vague concept to me. We didn’t study Black scholars, read Black authors, or speak of them much in my 99% white school, my 99% white church, or my 99% white neighborhood. They were rarely ever represented in the art that surrounded me except in rare appearances as residents of that place called “the Mission Field” where charity cases lived, people who needed my white-savior, white Jesus help.

And I welcomed the convenience of my cocoon. My education was incomplete. And it wasn’t just a case of my schools and churches failing to show me the whole picture; it was a case of active avoidance, a case of deliberate denial. An ache of doubt began to swell inside of me — a still, small voice of conscience that I believe was the work of grace, not anything I can boast of. I was comfortable among white conservative Republicans who professed Christianity and prioritized the memorization of verses about loving our neighbors and seeking justice, but who seemed to think that the only way to do this was to send money to missionaries far away, a convenient way to “serve” without discomfort. Meanwhile, our fears and dismissals became ever more obvious to me. Vocabularies of “us” and “them” turned bitter in my mouth.

In other words, though I could “talk the talk” of true Christianity — beliefs inspired by the teachings of Jesus, the brown-skinned Messiah — I was, in many ways, just another imposter who knew how to live in denial. I was only “passing.”

Thus, I am grateful for movies like this one. Passing, like Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Morrison’s Beloved, is a meaningful invitation to better understand, and thus learn to love, my African American neighbors. It asks me to confront “unrelatable” experiences so that I can work on waking up from an illusory substitute for the Gospel, a toxic worldview that runs so rampant in this fearful, hateful nation that I call home. As promised, the Truth, even though it is disruptive — because it is disruptive — will set us free.