‘Passing’s Ruth Negga: ‘Black Women Are Fed Subtle Messages of Who We’re Allowed to Be and Where We’re Allowed to Exist’

by Yah Yah
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This week, the Netflix movie, “Passing” hit the streaming platform and has already sparked debate surrounding racial identity.

In the movie, Ruth Negga stars as Clare Kendry, a light-skinned Black woman who moves through the city of New York as a white woman, in “Passing.” Negga is married to a white man in the movie, with whom she shares a child.

After bumping into an old friend, Irene (played by Tessa Thompson,) who is also biracial and could “pass” but chooses not to, Clare starts to gravitate toward the middle-class Black community of Harlem.

For Negga, elements of the story rang true to her. She says she has always struggled to feel at home.

“To be honest, I’ve never fit in anywhere,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “I think being Black in Ireland when there wasn’t that many Black people and being Black and Irish in London at an all-white school in the early ’90s wasn’t great for me either.”

“Passing” is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel and is the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall, who considers herself a “white passing” biracial woman.

Negga says Larsen’s book compelled her to take on the role.

“I’ve never read a book [where] I was [more] psychologically captivated by the way in which identity is treated. [Larsen] captures the nebulousness of identity that is ever-shifting, independent of social mores or social constructs: race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, all of these things,” the Ethiopian-Irish actress shared. “And you think, wow, if you’re being bombarded with who you ought to be all the time, where is the room to discover who you are? And why aren’t we afforded that freedom? Still to this day, everywhere you go [Black women are fed] subtle and explicit messages of who we’re allowed to be and where we’re allowed to exist.”

Negga also has strong opinions about Thompson’s character, Irene. Irene, who lives in Harlem with her husband, a Black doctor, is reeled by her close friend’s lifestyle.

“She’s all about the uplifting of the race, which is amazing, but that doesn’t leave her any room for individual idiosyncrasies, foibles, needs, desires, wants. And for me that’s a continuation of a theme that has been threaded through American [literature],” Negga muses. “This thread of the onus being on Black women to serve the community and a higher purpose. And I’m thinking, “What if the higher purpose is to serve oneself?” When is that the higher purpose? There’s been many [Black female] lives sacrificed at the altar of this world and I love that this book addresses that.”

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