Passing, one of the most unassuming and unpretentious films to premiere at this year’s Sundance, might have been the festival’s best. As noted by The Guardian way back in 2018 when the project was announced, the film’s subject matter revives a cinematic trope that used to be fairly popular in the ’40s and ’50s: non-white characters “passing” in order to enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Odd, perhaps, to think of such a thing as a “trope,” as “popular,” or as fodder for melodramas like Pinky or comedy-musicals like Show Boat. As it pertains to real life, the practice is decidedly more complex than its depiction in film would lead one to believe. Passing is one of the few to treat this social maneuver with care and restraint, and in doing so it instantly becomes the defining film on the subject.
The film follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) as she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), discovering that Clare has been passing for some time. She’s married to an unsuspecting white man (Alexander Skarsgård) prone to a matter-of-fact hatred of non-whites, and their child together was “thankfully” equally so light-skinned as to not give her away. Clare is immediately fascinating to Irene, and Irene’s obsession only grows when her own husband (André Holland) seems to take an interest in Clare as well. The criss-crossing relationships become fraught with ambiguities, true motivations and intentions often shrouded by a social façade that each character carries like a shield.
The trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah made me doubt how effective the film would actually be. Not because it looked bad, mind you, or uninteresting in any way. But I had flashes to Man of Steel, which lured me to the cinema with a stunning trailer and then turned out to be a soupy mess. Same for Only God Forgives, which had a bangin’ trailer — I remember saying the words “looks amazing” to a friend — and ultimately had about as much substance as the two-minute teaser itself. Well, fool me twice. Trepidation filled the air as the Sundance premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah began, because the first glimpse I’d had of the film was this rollicking hype-train of a masterful trailer:
Shaka King’s first major studio feature, thankfully, is indeed a strong and energetic biopic that doesn’t at all renege on the promise of that trailer. Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and focuses on FBI efforts to suppress and ultimately silence Hampton as he gains more and more popularity nationwide. It’s a long overdue portrayal of a significant figure in American history; before Kelvin Harrison, Jr. played Hampton in a bit part in this past year’s Trail of the Chicago 7, you have to go back to 1999 to find the only other instance of Hampton in another film or TV show (it’s another bit part in the miniseries The ’60s, which is mostly about hippies).