It’s a powerful way to visualize colorism in the story and acknowledge that upward social mobility is more available to lighter-skinned people of color who can “pass” for white. In that same vein, I appreciated the use of architecture in “Passing,” how your film so often involves characters ascending and descending between different floors.
When Clare comes into the house, I did construct it very deliberately. Irene is being chased around her house, and it’s a maze, and so they go upstairs and downstairs twice in that scene. And everyone kept saying to me, “Why do they have to go all the way up to the top? This is just going to make shooting difficult. And then why do they have to go all the way down? Can’t we just play it in one room?” I was like, “Absolutely not, no.” The structure has to be that she’s running away from someone. But you have to get down into the kitchen at least twice, so Irene can have this moment of performing the mistress of the house like she’s in control of everything. All she’s doing is awkwardly walking into the room and sniffing the pot and then going out again. She has no control over her domestic family life. And she’s not cooking. And she’s not providing for her children. Someone else is employed to do that. Clare has an easy relationship with having staff at that moment, which is very of a different class and a form of racial privilege, honestly. There’s an ease to “Isn’t it great to have someone who can do home cooking?” and to having those stereotypes about home-cooked meals in the Black community.
That you cast two Black actresses in the leading roles also makes “Passing” feel like a reconstitution along cinematic grounds, especially given that you shot in black-and-white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Seeing Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in a period piece stylistically evoking a bygone era of cinema reminded me of Eugene Ashe’s recent “Sylvie’s Love,” also with Thompson, which places Black actors within the historically white tradition of 1950s romantic melodrama. Have you seen it?
Yes, and there’s that same wish fulfillment of the industry if it had been different and been better. It’s very clearly pointing that out. There’s a reminiscence to [“Passing”]. I think we’ve gotten into a slightly disingenuous habit of going, “Oh, well, Hollywood’s never given strong female leads.” It did, but it was just melodrama, and it was in the ’40s and the ’30s. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford ruled the box office. All of these women were [starring] in the superhero movies of the day, these noirs about the emotional lives of women, often with each other. But they weren’t Black women, and women of color didn’t get that opportunity, and we’ve forgotten about that period of history. Obviously, it was limited and made by men, and there was a very particular gaze on those stories.
There is a slight nod to that in “Passing” and in its costumes. Very deliberately, Clare’s costumes, and how she presents herself in the movie, are not period-correct. She’s often without a hat, and she would never have been without a hat. And she’s often in slight shoulder pads, which are a reference to the ’40s. That’s all a nice byproduct of the black-and-white and the 4:3, though it’s not at all the reason why I did it. I wanted to create a world that was abstracted, metaphorical, and not real. And that allowed me to use Black actors, which was paramount.