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Tessa Thompson On Film 'Passing' Being About More Than Just Race

The actress believes many people are "passing" in today's society.

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Tessa Thompson co-stars in the new Netflix movie Passing alongside actress Ruth Negga. According to the synopsis, Passing is set in 1920s New York City where a Black woman finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend who's passing as white.


Filmed in black and white, Tessa plays Irene, a wife, and mother who lives with her family in Harlem and while she acknowledges her Blackness, her light complexion allows her to fit in white areas. Ruth Negga plays Clare who is married to a white man and passing as a white woman.

On the surface, the film is about two Black women dealing with the effects of passing for white, however, there's a more underlining story. Tessa spoke with Newsweek about the significant film and how it's about more than just race.

Tessa's character seemed to have the perfect life---married to a doctor with two kids and living in a beautiful brownstone, however, she's not happy. Then she runs into Ruth's character and Ruth's character quickly fits into her life with her family and friends making Tessa's character feel obsolete. Tessa touched on her character not being satisfied with her life.

"I think two things are happening: Brian, her husband, is lying in bed with her and implies that he's not entirely satisfied, which is something that she knows is true but doesn't want to be honest about," she said.

"I think she herself is deeply unsatisfied. That territory felt like something I understood. I think we exist, no matter the time to a certain extent, inside of systems that leave us dissatisfied, that don't allow us to be the full, most authentic versions of ourselves. We're told lies about how we should feel being a woman and what we should be. So I think dissatisfaction is something actually that we can understand and something that doesn't get lensed an awful lot."

Despite being unsatisfied, Tessa's character tries to hold everything together, but Ruth's character's abrupt arrival exposes the pitfalls in her marriage and it seems that she can no longer "pass" like everything is OK.

Neither can Ruth's character as she continues to intrude on Tessa's character's life and realizes she misses her Blackness. But their character's internal conflicts aren't just unique to that time period. Tessa believes many people are still "passing" in today's society.

"I think it's so deeply relevant. There's such modernity to it," said Tessa. "In terms of code-switching or passing, one of the things Irene says both in the book and in our adaptation is that we're all passing for one thing or another.

She says that to her friend, who is passing himself because he's a queer man who is married and puts on the artifice of being straight, although not very convincingly to his social community.

So I think that is saying all of us sometimes find ourselves passing. There were women who were suffocated by domesticity that have to pass, queer folks that pass, all those things were happening then in the 1920s, and I think that still happens now."

Passing was written and directed by Rebecca Hall who came up with the idea after reading the 1929 novel Nella Larsen while also coming to grips with her own family in which her grandfather, who was Black, passed for white for most of his life.

Featured image by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

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