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One lives their life as Black. One as white. 'Passing' is two Black friends' journey

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The new Netflix film "Passing" tells the story of two childhood friends, Irene and Clare, who reconnect in Harlem in the 1920s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PASSING")

KHALID: Both women are light skinned, able to pass as white. Irene chooses not to, but Clare is living as a white woman, married to a white man, who doesn't have a clue she's Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PASSING")

RUTH NEGGA: (As Clare) My goodness, John. After all these years, what would it matter if you found out that I was 1 or 2% colored, hmm?

ALEXANDER SKARSGARD: (As John) Well, you can turn as Black as you please as far as I'm concerned. I know you're not colored.

NEGGA: (As Clare) So you dislike Negroes, Mr. Bellew?

SKARSGARD: (As John) No, no, no. Not at all. I hate them.

KHALID: Over the course of the movie, there is this palpable and sometimes unspoken tension, as Irene and Clare confront painful questions about what it means to be Black in a segregated society. "Passing" is based on a novel from 1929, starring Tessa Thompson, Alexander Skarsgard and my next guest, Ruth Negga, who plays Clare. Ruth, welcome to the program.

NEGGA: Thank you for having me.

KHALID: Clare is this vivacious and extremely complicated woman. What drew you to her character?

NEGGA: Curiosity. I was so struck by the many layers to the story of these two women and how sort of so clearly these women embody the idea of still waters running deep. I was aware of the concept of passing and its history in America. And when I'd seen it sort of in fiction, I'd only sort of seen it in the vein of the sort of tragic mulatto trope. And I thought, wow, that's just so basic. There's much more to passing and much more to the people who passed than just this - these simplified narratives.

KHALID: I want to ask you about the friendship between Clare and Irene, who goes by Reenie. The film opens with this chance encounter between the two women. They haven't seen each other in a dozen years. And they are so different - their personalities, their life choices, I mean, frankly, even how they they've decided that they want the world to look at them. What is it that you found that these two women discovered in one another?

NEGGA: I mean, from the off, they're very distinct presences on screen, aren't they? But they're both grappling with their identity, both prescribed by social circumstances, indeed the law, and the inner turmoil as they deal with the chasm between their outside and their inside, you know, and the tensions that that brings. But I think in one another, they see a sort of missing half. These two women are perhaps the embodiment of subjects that are still taboo today - colorism, defending one's identity. How do we fit into a society which demands to label us?

KHALID: Without giving too much away, I do want to ask you about this moment near the end of the movie between Irene and her husband, played by Andre Holland.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PASSING")

ANDRE HOLLAND: (As Brian) I wanted to leave this hellish place years ago.

TESSA THOMPSON: (As Irene) I have been saying we should go away for a bit, but then you seemed happier having Clare around.

HOLLAND: (As Brian) What the hell does Clare got to do with any of this?

THOMPSON: (As Irene) Only that we would have gone on a trip but for that.

HOLLAND: (As Brian) No, I gave up that idea because you are...

THOMPSON: (As Irene) I never objected to having...

HOLLAND: (As Brian) [expletive] damn it. Irene, I'm not talking about Clare....

THOMPSON: (As Irene) Because it seems to me...

HOLLAND: (As Brian) ...And I'm not talking about a trip. I am talking about leaving this country for good.

THOMPSON: (As Irene) ...Because it seems to me you are a lot less content with what you've got when she's not here.

KHALID: Seems like Irene's reality has totally changed as a result of Clare's presence, that Clare being around has caused her to doubt her marriage, her ability to parent her Black sons, her general place in society. Who is the one who, in the end, is most damaged in this story?

NEGGA: Interesting. Well, I mean, Clare is a fully fleshed woman in her own right, but she certainly is a disabling disruption. But actually, it's a necessity in Clare's presence that propels Irene to really sort of hold a mirror up to herself because it feels like this is the first time that Irene has really sort of looked at herself so nakedly. But she's doing it through the prism of this sort of love and friendship, isn't it? You're sort of repelled and attracted in equal measure, and you're not entirely sure what exactly repels you and what exactly attracts you. But there's something animal about it.

Clare really is - she's such a radical force. I mean, when she says things like, you know, motherhood isn't all it's cracked up to be, I mean, that's a radical sort of point of view that even now is quite shocking to many. But then I can't imagine how shocking it must have been because, you know, that's where women were expected to get their life's satisfaction - from being a carer and taking care of others. And that's especially so women of color. And Clare sort of represents that kick against the system. And that's what makes her so brilliant and a delight to play, really, because her very existence as a Black woman passing for white is a radical threat to the establishment and that the white supremacy is the status quo. And passing was a very precarious situation to put oneself in. It wasn't this sort of, oh, I'm going off to be white now and have a fabulous life. People have called it a chosen exile or self-exile. But it was really motivated a lot by class, by poverty and about access to opportunities which were otherwise denied.

KHALID: The film deconstructs this idea of passing privilege in a historical context. Do you feel like there is a relevance, though, in 2021?

NEGGA: Oh, definitely. And I think, you know, whether I like it or not, I've definitely benefited being a lighter-skinned Black actress. You know, I mean, it's been explicit. You know, you go in for the part of the best friend, and there's like - and everyone there is, you know, light-skinned Black woman. And you realize, oh, this is the part where they get the minority in for. And it's - but let's make them as white-adjacent as possible, so they're more palatable. Those things are things that, you know, we're starting to talk about because they need to be undermined because they're not right.

KHALID: Ruth Negga is a star of Netflix's new film "Passing" Ruth, thank you so much for taking the time. Really appreciate it.

NEGGA: Thank you for speaking with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.