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Ruth Negga on Passing: ‘We need to address issues that people are frightened of’

Actress Ruth Negga says her new film Passing brings a ‘sense of urgency’ to the story from 1920s America that is matched in the present day.

The new film Passing is adapted from a novella written by Nella Larsen in 1920s America. It tackles, through lyrical and beautiful prose, complex issues around race in the United States. The story centres on the reunion of two light-skinned Black women who were childhood friends in Harlem. When they meet again, both are ‘passing’ as white. 

For Irene, played by Tessa Thompson in the new version of the story which recently dropped on Netflix, this is a one-off incident, a dippng of her toe into another world while away from her doctor husband and the literary circles she moves in. But for Clare, played by Ruth Negga, this is her life. 

When Negga – nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Loving in 2017 and remembered fondly by fans of hit TV shows Misfits and Preacher – calls from New York, she is on a high. Two years after filming Passing with first-time writer-director Rebecca Hall (star of acclaimed film Christine and BBC’s Parade’s End), Negga has been as moved by the film as she was on reading the book in her early 20s. 

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“I was blown away,” she says. “First of all by the beauty of it and how Rebecca Hall has managed to translate not just this story from the novel to the screen but it was like she managed to put the guts of it on the screen. The visceral reaction I had, the emotional reaction I had to reading the book was up there. 

“It is one of those novels. It is super-sensual, it’s intoxicating, and it stays with you. It’s haunting even as you read it. And it stayed with me. Especially as a woman of colour, Nella’s work has a transformative effect on you. It’s one of those books that leaves you changed. To somehow take that chemistry and translate it to the screen and keep it alive, that to me is genius filmmaking. So I’m in awe of Rebecca Hall.” 

“Can you imagine the pain of a parent having to decide when to have this conversation with your Black boys and girls about the fact that the world isn’t safe for their bodies? This was written in 1929. It makes me so angry that this is still a decision we’re having to make.” 

Ruth Negga

The film was a long time coming. Hall, whose grandfather was African-American and passed as white for most of his life, began work on the adaptation more than a decade ago. 

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“It took years to get financing because not only was she was adamant about wanting it to be in black and white, but it centres on two women of colour – and that, unsurprisingly, but desperately sadly, is very hard to get any cash for,” says Negga. 

“People were still wary of stories centred on women of colour, and not only that, but their experience within the Black community and not through any white lens or gaze. It shows the effect of passing upon the individual’s own community. Who knows why people said no? Idiots.” 

Tessa Thompson as Irene, Ruth Negga as Clare and director Rebecca Hall while filming Passing. Image: Emily V. Aragones/Netflix © 2021

The film looks beautiful in monochrome, the depictions of jazz age New York defying Passing’s low budget. But, like the novel, it’s the emotions that really captivate. The way Clare – ostensibly a free spirit following her desires – triggers an unravelling in the more sombre, thoughtful Irene. Both women’s constant calculations. 

“Clare became an orphan and decided to pass for a white woman, not because she wants to discard her blackness, but because she’s poor,” says Negga. 

“So, already, the discussion about racial passing has invited in a discussion about class. Already racial passing is a metaphor for all the different kinds of passing we do and what compels us to do that. For Clare, it is about access and opportunity, which she feels she doesn’t have as a woman of colour in 1920s New York. And it’s not a feeling, it’s a reality.  

“For me, the book is a rage against boxing people in and against forcing an outside perspective on to people, as individuals and as a community. Passing has been referred to as a sort of chosen exile because you are exiling yourself from your community, and what comes with that is the twin burdens of isolation and danger, because of the danger of being caught. 

“From the testimonials I’ve read and heard it wasn’t a decision people took lightly. It was a decision that could have deadly consequences. And is something even a choice when you feel it’s the only option you have left?” 

In common with the book, much of the film focuses on Clare and Irene’s interior lives. The multiple layers of meanings are clear to see in scenes where they meet and Clare becomes a fixture in the lives and community of Irene and her husband Brian whenever Clare’s racist husband – played by Alexander Skarsgard – is out of town. 

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“Rebecca managed to actually tease out the million thoughts and impulses that were battling within me as I played Clare,” says Negga.  

“I could see them on screen. You see the joie de vivre, the effervescence of this woman but also that what was really bubbling underneath was the pain and the burden of living in a marriage that is a lie, a marriage where she has to bear this casual misogynoir [hatred of Black women]. 

“And Clare knows this skirmishing with danger, however enjoyable its illicit nature, is putting her life at risk. By listening to her longing to be back within her community, she is taking a very real risk. 

“There’s a desperation to connect because when people pass, they may be able to achieve certain things, but in many ways their lives get smaller. They can’t share their whole selves with anybody. This is what Clare gains by being in the orbit of Irene and the community that she left.” 

The film, and the conversations and complex issues it foregrounds, could not be more prescient. Though that, Negga agrees, would have been equally true at any point in the nine decades since the book was written. 

“That sense of urgency in our film is matched by the sense of urgency I feel in our world today, that we need to address issues that people are frightened of,” she says. 

“The need to hear stories that give us succour feels very strong at the moment. I mean, you’ve got Irene and Brian having this intense argument about whether to discuss lynching with their two young boys. Brian’s instinct to protect his children is to be transparent with them – that Black boys can’t afford to have information hidden from them about the realities of the world. 

“Can you imagine the pain of a parent having to decide when to have this conversation with your Black boys and girls about the fact that the world isn’t safe for their bodies? This was written in 1929. It makes me so angry that this is still a decision we’re having to make.” 

Passing is streaming on Netflix 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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