Marking actor Rebecca Hall’s filmmaking debut (Christine, Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Prestige), Passing is a nuanced rumination on colorism, friendship, marriage and the expectations put on ourselves and projected onto others. Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Hall arrived at the story nearly 15 years ago when the book was recommended to her as she explored her own family’s history of inter-racial marriages and Black Americans passing for white (Hall’s maternal grandfather was, according to her own research, a Black man in Detroit who passed for white). Such a deep understanding of the source material is key to the film’s ultimate success. And so are the brilliant, quietly fierce performances from the film’s main trio: Tessa Thompson as Irene, an upper-middle-class Black woman living with her family in prohibition-era Harlem; André Holland as her husband, Brian; and Ruth Negga as Clare, the childhood friend she bumps into one day who’s doing such a “good” job of passing for white that her white (and very racist) husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard) is none the wiser.
Reconnected after many years, Clare and Irene rekindle a friendship as adults largely based on Clare’s desire to rediscover the Black community she’s shunned for most of her adulthood; Irene is skeptical at first, but she and Brian eventually welcome Clare back into their life, one that’s full of sophisticated affairs like charitable balls and cocktail parties sparkling with smart conversation. Though the title may imply that Clare is the central figure in Passing, in fact this is Irene’s journey, as she navigates reacquainting herself with a woman who was dealt largely the same cards as she was who opted to play them in very, very different ways. Thompson and Negga are each portraying women with a lot to lose, but as Clare relishes in what she’ll gain as she dips her toe back into her Black culture and community, Irene worries more and more about the family’s unstable position in society given the rampant racism and classism, both systemic and personal, in their lives.
Filmed in black and white and presented in a constrained 4:3 aspect ratio (more of a square than today’s modern widescreen standard), Hall uses every tool in her toolbox to create a sense of nostalgia and history in Passing (let’s talk about those costumes by Marci Rodgers, shall we?). She’s a first time filmmaker, but she’s anything but green, and she arrives to this debut directorial effort with a confidence that anchors the entire film. That sense of purpose carries into the performances, as all three main actors create individuals fighting their own internal battles while they push back against each other, too. Paced with plenty of space to breathe and observe every moment, every interaction, the slow build pays off in spades in the film’s final moments. I gasped, and I bet you will, too. Passing is a film with a seemingly countless number of themes, and digging into any one of them—Irene and Clare’s friendship; Irene and Brian’s marriage; raising Black boys in America; what makes a “real” woman, a “real” wife; and on and on—would only reveal even more layers to this beautifully articulated and deeply felt drama as relevant today as it was nearly a hundred years ago.
Passing is now streaming on Netflix.
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