Passing and The Forty-Year Old Version are two Netflix films I saw recently that share some similarities. Both are feature film debuts of two female filmmakers, Rebecca Hall and Radha Blank, respectively, and both deal with racial inequality, albeit set in two different periods and dealt with in very different ways.
“Passing” follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities.
The term ‘passing’ refers the practice of members of minority or oppressed races, religions, ethnic groups, etc., pretending to be members of the majority culture (in this case white) to escape prejudice. Apparently it’s a personal topic for actress-turned-filmmaker Rebecca Hall as her own biracial mother and grandfather both passed themselves off as white.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white, which is a fitting artistic choice given the subject matter. At the center of the story is Irene (a sublime Tessa Thompson) whose chance encounter with a childhood friend Claire (Ruth Negga) at an upscale NYC cafe. Thompson is mesmerizing in the first 10 minutes… as she treads carefully in the way she appears in public, completely aware of her status as a black woman living in New York in the 20s. Hall shows the details of the surrounding as well as the costumes the women are wearing, as those help tell a story as well as being gorgeous to look at.
I think Passing is an admirable directorial debut that’s both intriguing but also a bit frustrating at times. It’s not so much that it’s slow (I actually enjoy slow-burn movies), but everything is so polished that it’s emotionally-distant. The depiction of Irene’s family life with her wealthy doctor husband Brian (André Holland) and their two boys give a glimpse of the affluent lifestyle (they even have a maid) in a two-story Brookstone Apartment. They are keenly aware that most black people suffer terrible racial injustices elsewhere as they discuss people getting lynched and brutally killed in the South, a subject Irene doesn’t want to dwell on.
There’s not much exploration about Claire’s home life with her white husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) who’s an unapologetic racist. The moment he proclaimed that fact right in front of Irene definitely makes your skin crawl. There’s a really interesting buildup between Irene and Claire, but the fascination wears off rather quickly as I find myself having trouble connecting with either of them, as both are hiding under a veil to conceal their true emotions, even from each other.
Obsession, envy, jealousy are all themes explored throughout, but despite its provocative finale, it doesn’t quite mask its superficiality. The ambiguous ending actually makes me gasp as seems to come out of nowhere. It’s perhaps the boldest move of the entire film, a savage, violent end to an otherwise graceful, even delicate film. But then again, as Irene says to her friend Hugh (Bill Camp) at one point, people–and in this case films–aren’t always what they seem.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)
Radha is a down-on-her-luck NY playwright, who is desperate for a breakthrough before 40. Reinventing herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime, she vacillates between the worlds of Hip Hop and theater in order to find her true voice.
I had missed this film last year, but thanks to my friend’s insistence that I finally got around to seeing it. I’m still kicking myself why it took me so long to watch this!
It’s rare to find a film that has such an authentic voice, so it’s so refreshing to see one that has it in abundance. FYOV… the acronym of the title is the same as its mantra… Find Your Own Voice, an inspiring and fitting theme for the film that lives up to it and then some! Radha Blank tells her own personal story so brilliantly! Basically playing herself, I was completely absorbed by her realness and sense of humor, navigating life as a high school drama teacher and fulfilling her dream as a playwright. Nothing is more motivating, as well as burdensome, to an artist than an early accolade, as Radha was one of the recipient of 30-under-30 award for one of her plays. It’s apparent she is struggling to live up to that early kudos, while her longtime friend/agent Archie (Peter Kim) never stops believing in her.
I love the documentary shooting style by DP Eric Branco, which suits the narrative Radha is telling. The IMDb trivia page describes the story as a reference to the ‘Hollywood Shuffle,’ about a Black artist confronting the white gatekeepers on who gets to tell a Black story and how. I wasn’t aware of that term but as a non-white, immigrant writer, I definitely can relate to that struggle. White gaze’s eroticism on the pain of people of color’ is nothing new, but seeing it realized in this film in the form of powerful theatre producer J. Whitman (Reed Birney) is so damning and revolting. He only wanted to produce Radha’s play if she’s willing to modify it to appeal to more white audiences, and they changes so much of it she could barely recognize her own work in it.
I enjoy the warm-yet-testy relationship between Radha and Archie. He means well but it’s obvious his ‘creative push’ for her is self-serving. When Radha finally got a possible big break on her play, Archie said ‘This is the major production you wanted’... Her reply was: ‘Do I want it this way?’ Just that conversation alone strikes a chord with me, which makes me root for Radha even more.
The moment Radha finally did find her own voice in the form of rap is so cool and filled with a real, raw emotion. I really enjoy her rapping style and most of all her evocative lyrics, and I’m usually not a fan of rap music at all. She finds a young DJ named D (Oswin Benjamin) who she thinks might be able to help her. Despite a bit of a rough start, D actually appreciates that she’s got something to say (‘I make the beats but sometimes I need some storytelling’) and becomes more than just an artistic ally. The tentative romance also feels real and not forced, as Radha begins to open up a bit and let someone in who sees her for who she is.
I absolutely adore this movie as it presents an artist struggle in such a real way, warts and all… even her relationship with her students is fun to watch despite the vulgar and raunchy language. This movie made me laugh and cry, it’s thought-provoking, funny, relatable and emotional, just what every movie should be! The real star is Radha herself who refuses to be put in a box and be told what kind of art she should make. That final defiant moment at the close of her opening night play makes me get up and cheer.
This movie was a Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance where Radha won a Best Directing prize. It’s a phenomenal debut and it stands as one of my favorite films directed by women so far! I sure hope to see more of Radha Blank’s work in the future, both in front and behind the camera.
This post is part of Dell On Movies‘ GIRL WEEK 2021 Blogathon – It’s that time of year when Dell invited his fellow bloggers to focus on women in movies. You can join the fun by posting or talking about films with females in the lead, directed by women, or feature women in some other prominent role.