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.
Continue reading Passing (2021)
The Human Stain tackles a great many things, with racism and African-American struggles being only the largest of the many themes at play. The dehumanizing power of racism is an undeniable part of America’s past, but it was every bit as important a discussion in the early years of the new millennium when the film came out. It’s every bit as important now at the time of writing and will be every bit as important there, where you are, in the future, at time of reading. As with anything so powerful, so socially destructive, the cultural perception ebbs and flows with time and with provocation. Do we remember that dark past? Do we really? Do we hold a part of it in secret? These questions pry at Coleman Silk, our “hero”. Before we delve into Coleman it must be noted that The Human Stain (the novel) should be a mainstay of every contemporary African-American literature curriculum, and it was written by an Old White Jewish Guy.
That guy is Philip Roth, an author so prolific that it’s surprising so few of his works have been adapted to the screen. The long-gestating adaption of American Pastoral, arguably Roth’s most famous work, is now looking set for the year ahead with Ewan McGregor taking on directing and starring duties. And the adaptation of Indignation just played at Sundance a few days ago to positive reviews, too, so maybe we’re in for a bit of a Roth resurgence in the same way No Country for Old Men prompted a scramble to adapt the best stuff by Cormac McCarthy. Here in The Land of Hypothetical Roth Adaptations we’d cast Johnny Depp as the possibly-demented Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, so when that happens in real life just know that you heard it here first.
Continue reading The Human Stain (2003)