Blerd Watch: ‘Passing’

Ruth Negga as Clare Bellew in Passing (2021) Image courtesy of Netflix

Remember when Taylor Swift basically took the music world by storm with her amazing banjo-picking rendition of Earth Wind and Fire’s R&B classic September a little over three years ago, prompting many in the Black community to praise her as a musical genius, dubbing her an honorary queen of soul, and even extending to her a lifetime invitation to the “cookout”?

Well, neither do I.

But I do remember that it didn’t take long for Black Twitter to unleash the draggin’ once the cringeworthy track was released.

And I also remember thinking to myself that, of course, Taylor Swift being a multi-talented, award-winning musical artist probably felt she was qualified or simply entitled by virtue of her whiteness to cover any song of her choosing which seems very much on-brand in an industry with a long history of cultural appropriation.

It would seem that certain people have learned nothing from Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park (1993) that just because they can do something doesn’t always mean they SHOULD, especially when it comes to white women who believe that Black people should somehow be honored by their often whimsical, joyless, unseasoned, and baffling interpretations of our art and culture.

Because we’re not talking about a one-hit-wonder by a group of unknowns whose short-lived celebrity is eclipsed by the popularity of their once upon a time chart-topper. We’re talking about Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame legends whose songs are still considered bangers even in a more tech-savvy era of social media, viral videos, and the ominous specter of cancel culture.

So what does any of this have to do with the movie Passing (2021)?

Rebecca Hall is an English actress turned director who made her directorial debut earlier this year, adapting the 1929 Nella Larsen novella Passing to the big screen. Hall claimed she felt connected to the book’s precarious subject matter of Black women being able to pass as white in late 1920s New York.

It turns out that Hall’s grandfather who apparently was light-skinned enough to pass as white (I assume somewhere between El DeBarge and retired baseball great Sammy Sosa) probably came to her in a “vision” -a lot like the same entitlement vision had by Swift–to make this film. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I will admit that Passing is aesthetically pleasing to look at with its lush monochromatic hues producing a sort of grim gray effect that nicely punctuates the theme of racial ambiguity evident throughout the film. And, although, Tessa Thompson (Irene Redfield) and Ruth Negga (Clare Bellew) turn in superb performances their characters largely felt incomplete.

Passing the novella is the early seminal work that exemplifies the intersectionality of Black women before the term was even coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. But in the hands of Rebecca Hall, Passing becomes a generic, unimaginative, cautionary tale in cautious storytelling. In other words, there’s more telling than showing which is indicative of an inexperienced first-time director unwilling or not skilled enough to take risks with the source material.

Still, the overwhelming majority of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie positive reviews. But, then again, they’re probably mostly white people who think Taylor Swift’s Milk of Magnesia version of September was a vast improvement on the original.

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