To justify passing herself off as white, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) observes that “everyone is passing as something or another.” A less-than-disarming epigram meant to sum up a narrowly conceived film, it’s a dodge that might be the Roaring Twenties equivalent of “All Lives Matter.” No character in this film, set in New York, is tethered to anything heftier than a whimper of protest against racial myths spun by a segregated society producing profit and gain for the rich. The exception is the housemaid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins), who adds the obligatory light pass of a working-class presence, here meant to implicate the contrasting light skin privilege of Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), her employer.
To pass for white, it’s important to clarify what white means. The more scientific word for “white,” is Caucasian. Caucasian ancestry is European and its demographic interfaces with Africa, Asia, and the Americas. So, the character passing for “white,” must make some choices: Which ethnicity? Which social class? Which characteristics contradict what is taken for granted as “white”? In other words, as an artist, the actor-as-character must create his or her distinctive white avatar out of the blood and bone that Caucasian people are made of. Good at play-acting, Clare tries to sell Irene on the gambit that she takes pride in her deceit, but the script gives her no backstory which would make hers stick. Without one, her white self erases what little we know of her real self, exchanging it for a Gordian Knot of ectoplasm. She is a citizen without the portfolio from which she could unpack a social history framed in its proper historical dimensions.
As this unknown quantity, a cipher, Clare ends up admired—or not—pitied or praised—for her contrived beauty. Out of nowhere, unobserved by the viewing audience, Clare transmogrifies from a threat to the primacy of husband Brian (André Holland) in Irene’s life to an engrossing head case he stops side-eyeing and starts eyeing more frontally. In conversations with Irene, Brian rips Clare’s absence of melanin, but in secret, he finds allure in her self-declared lone-fox wild side, because who knows where that could take things for this husband who finds himself losing ground on the home front?
Hugh [Bill Camp), is a white downtown gadfly who contributes generously to the Negro League. He is the personification of fascination with black people as curios. His friend Irene volunteers for the Negro League, not to organize in her Harlem community, but to orchestrate charity galas. Clare, nostalgic for her black roots, attaches herself to these gatherings when her husband is out of town. Hugh, having paid the piper, presumes that he is entitled to issue cynical and preposterous pronouncements on the ironies of race, his quips invariably tripping over his ill-begotten fixations. Clare’s husband (Alexander Skarsgård) is a Central Casting blue-eyed southern racist. It’s tempting to attribute his having fallen for Clare’s charade to a case of acute myopia.
Handsomely curated black and white photography and an engaging ragtime score, contribute to conjuring up a more sedate New York than anyone alive today can recall. Adroit editing turns short scenes into bevel-edged photo essays. The problem here is that you can’t burden four or five weightless characters, however complicated their relationships may become, with conferring meaning to a story that resists definition in favor of licking superficial wounds it makes only a “just enough” effort to reveal.