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Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga on the racial tensions of 'Passing,' colorism in Hollywood

·5 min read

It's tense to pretend to be something you're not.

Yet everyone is doing it in one way or another, or so goes the refrain in Netflix's new drama "Passing" (in select theaters now, streaming Nov. 10). That tension plays out in Rebecca Hall's directorial debut, which focuses on former childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), who rediscover their relationship as adults in 1920s New York.

Both are Black women. But one, Clare, is "passing" as white and married to white businessman John (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no clue about his wife's secret; the other, Irene, lives in Harlem with Black doctor husband Brian (André Holland) and their two children.

Based on the 1929 Nella Larsen novel of the same name, the movie manages to tap into the modern-day parallels of "grappling with identity, the idea of (whether) we accept the identity that society gives us," Negga says.

On screen, "there's this tension of us really being very different," Thompson says. "There's a kind of restraint that Irene has and the kind of vivacious, live-wire spirit that (Clare has)."

The duo calls in via video chat from The London hotel in Los Angeles. Thompson, a Marvel fixture who resumes her role as Valkyrie in next year's "Thor: Love and Thunder," sits alongside Negga, who earned her first Oscar nomination in 2017 for "Loving."

Sundance: 'Passing' star Tessa Thompson says her role 'terrified me every day'

The two come together for this black-and-white indie which debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January, both drawn in by Hall's screenplay, which adapts the novel for the silver screen.

In "Passing," Clare reenters Irene's life – but not without consequence. The reappearance leads to a rift in Irene's marriage and causes Clare to reexamine the life and culture she so willingly gave up. The film dances around those tensions, including a nod to the fact that there may be more between the two women.

But the crux of the film is not just pretending for pretend's sake – it's about the real and perceived joy and safety (especially for a Black woman passing as white) that accompanies it, Negga says.

Safety is "always there, haunting every move they make. And it's still the reality for a lot of people," Negga says.

The movie also features scenes at home in Harlem, where Irene pushes back against Brian telling their sons about the harsh realities of being Black in America.

"You could literally pluck those words and put them in a modern parent," Thompson says.

The insidious ways in which race affects everything are prime fodder for Hall's movie. Irene is casually passing at a fancy hotel, hoping not to be recognized as Black, when she reconnects with fully passing Clare. When Clare introduces Irene to her husband, Skarsgård's John comments on his hatred for Black people (despite having never met a Black person), not realizing he's secretly in the presence of two. In a later scene at a fundraising dance, Irene and a white writer dissect the way Black people look, how they dance and why they would want to pass as white.

Thompson, who is Afro-Latina, and Negga, who is Irish and Ethiopian, underscore how wider discussions help destigmatize the power of race and colorism.

"I think our film certainly shows the ways in which racism, the construct and the ways in which it binds us is quite silly. I wish I had known that as a kid," Thompson says, curling up in her chair, resting her chin on her knee as she thinks back to the perception of race in her youth.

As a child "I had a lot of conflicted and confusing feelings around race," Thompson continues, including feeling that she had to "diminish certain things" about herself in order to "be safe and to have a sense of belonging."

There are more open conversations about race now, Negga says. "When I was a kid, no one talked about it. And it was seen as super taboo to acknowledge race ... because who knew what can of worms you were opening."

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The movie simultaneously positions being white adjacent as a blessing and a curse. Statistically and anecdotally, skin tone bias remains a significant form of discrimination in everything from hiring to policing, with darker skin people often disproportionately affected negatively.

Thompson notes "from a very young age, I had this real sense … that proximity to whiteness just meant that you had more opportunity. I feel grateful that's something that we talk about now." Thompson says she feels pride that her mother, who is half Mexican, "is very proud to reengage with her heritage" after feeling the need to whitewash her name for years.

Negga briefly bristles at questions of colorism: "It's funny how we're the only people who ever get asked about it. … We have to solve a problem that has been directed at us, and that always irritates me," Negga says.

"If there's going to be allyship, then the allyship needs to be in the discussion and conversation as well. (It) can't just be left up to one or two people who have a platform at a particular time," Negga says.

Thompson addressed what role she can play in the conversation about colorism in Hollywood. "I want to then try to be one of those people that wields power. … I want to have a slate of projects inside of my production company that speak to the brilliance and beauty of Black women," she says.

"There is a real question (of) if you know something is rotten, what responsibility do we have to just say, 'No, I won't. I won't play that part'? Because you're erasing someone that is better suited. And I think that is valid."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Passing on Netflix: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga open up about colorism

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