To say this week’s film fits in with the theme of starting a new adventure wouldn’t be particularly accurate. However, it does have the distinction of being based on a novel by trailblazing writer (and librarian!) Nella Larsen. In addition to that, it marks the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall…and will I jinx things by predicting first Oscar for Ruth Negga?
A woman’s life changes in tragic ways after reconnecting with a childhood friend now passing for white.
On a particularly sweltering day in 1920s New York, Harlem resident Irene finds herself in a ritzy part of Manhattan. Feeling faint, she stops for an iced tea at a fancy hotel. Irene’s gaze is drawn to a lively blonde who has an extremely familiar laugh. As it turns out, the woman is her childhood friend Clare, a light-skinned Black woman now passing for white.
Now living in Chicago, Clare is visiting with her husband while he works on some sort of business deal. A white man with no clue that his wife and her friend are both light-skinned Black women, Clare’s husband shares some horrendous views on race. Upset but unwilling to reveal her former friend’s secret, Irene keeps her cool and prays Clare will leave town immediately, never to return.
Of course, almost the opposite happens. After so much time hiding her identity, Clare is eager to reconnect with the Black community in Harlem. When Irene ignores a letter from Clare, Clare refuses to take a hint, visiting her old friend’s home out of the blue. Though angry, Irene softens, inviting Clare to a fundraiser dance she has organized. To Irene’s surprise, Clare has very few concerns about being recognized, and even seems to long for her identity to be exposed.
While the people in Irene’s circle are quickly won over by Clare’s charm, Irene’s husband Brian remains unimpressed. A burnt out doctor who longs to live abroad in a country where he doesn’t have to routinely warn his children about the latest lynching to make headlines, Brian finds Clare overly loud and pushy. By her own admission, Clare is ambitious and will do what it takes to get what she wants.
As Clare dazzles those around her while enjoying lots of lively jazz sounds, she is caught in a moment with Brian that seems suspect to Irene. Is Irene jealous of Clare…or her husband? And will Clare be able to sustain two lives in two different worlds for much longer?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
Somewhat of a slow burn, this film is beautifully shot and brilliant at slowly peeling back the layers. Deservedly so, Ruth Negga has received much praise for her role here. She brings all of the charisma and charm needed for the character along with her sadness and regret under the surface.
Like the character of Clare herself (and Irene), the film holds us at a distance, and we don’t have much interiority when it comes to our characters’ motives. Because true identity is guarded closely, there’s quite a lot of ambiguity surrounding what Clare and Irene want for themselves and each other. While Clare is hiding her identity as a Black woman, Irene may be hiding her attraction to Clare. With all of the high stakes secrets being kept, it’s perhaps not terribly surprising that things end tragically.
While I would have welcomed a bit more certainty about some of the characters’ thoughts and actions, I appreciate the nuanced reflections on race, privilege, and identity here.