Fashion

Tessa Thompson on Passing, Telling Black Stories, and Style

The film takes an almost modern approach, causing the audience, at first glance, to question whether the characters could “pass” by any sense of the definition.

“They look at Ruth and I and thought, ‘Well, those are two Black women, like passing for what?’ And I think that was really intentional for Rebecca. She wanted the audience to come in always knowing and assuming that you’re seeing two Black women, particularly for Ruth, that you’re never suspending your disbelief,” Thompson ruminates.

While colorism is a familiar burden through BIPOC communities, outside of Black circles, “passing” in a new concept. Thompson even laughs while remembering that some people thought “passing” meant the actress had passed away when the posters for the film first came out.

The curtain was pulled back on the “one-drop rule,” a pseudoscientific social construct and legal instrument that asserted that any person with even one ancestor of Black ancestry was considered Black, even 1/32 or some other infinitesimal amount, and therefore subjected to the rules of segregation. When Homer Plessy stepped on that train in 1892, refusing to sit in the car designated for Black people, the idea of measuring Blackness was born. “Separate but equal” was introduced and not challenged until Brown v. Board of Education. TikTok influencers introduced many to “white passing” minorities, or the idea of Blackfishing. As Imani Perry states in Harper’s Bazaar, the rules of racial membership have shifted, and Gen Z is skeptical of the one-drop rule of the past. After the movie premiered on Netflix, Black Twitter exploded with stories of “passing,” with Black folks explaining how the idea impacted their families and the generational repercussions of those choices.

“And that’s the thing. The film came from that place. It came from Rebecca [Hall] wrestling with this legacy of passing in her family [and] trying to understand it. And so I’m really curious to hear those stories from people. That’s been the thing that I felt really excited about in this coming into the world. I think so much in the stories that I want to tell is, What is the utility of this story? Why do we need this story? Do we need this story?” Thompson explains.

Now more than ever, we do need these stories, these stories like Larsen’s that enter canon alongside Imitation of Life (a 1959 film that tells the story of an acclaimed Broadway star, who the audience learns is a white-passing Black woman, who shuns her Black mother to her deathbed) and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (a novel about twins, where one lives a life as a light-skinned Black woman and the other passes for white, and the repercussions that creates for the generations that follow them). As author Koa Beck says, “Passing can be a window into how progressive we are not.”

In a way, the film is a Rorschach test for the viewer. Do they see two Black women attempting to pass or two women dealing with their sexuality or two spouses testing the limits of their love?

“I really love and feel excited by making a piece of work that, for some people, they will think it’s a film where nothing happens,” Thompson says. “And I think, in that way, the film says more about people’s reaction to the film than it does about the film necessarily, and that I find really exciting. I’m really thrilled to be a part of a piece of work that engages people on all those levels.”

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