Directed by: Rebecca Hall
Premise: Based on the novel by Nella Larsen. Set in the 1920s, a light skinned African American woman (Ruth Negga) has married a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who is oblivious to her race. She reaches out to her old friends who live in Harlem and reconnects with her roots.
What Works: Passing is a beautifully understated and layered movie. The story unfolds from the point of view of Irene, played by Tessa Thompson, a black woman who lives in Harlem with her husband and children. Irene reunites with her old friend Clare, played by Ruth Negga. Clare is black but very light skinned and has dyed her hair blonde, allowing her to pass as white. She has married an upper-class white man who is casually racist but hasn’t figured out Clare’s true ethnicity. Irene and Clare begin socializing with Clare visiting Harlem to participate in the black cultural renaissance of the time. The title of Passing has multiple applications to this story and the filmmakers and the cast explore those subtilties with great care and thoughtfulness. The film is most obviously about Clare, and at times Irene, imitating whiteness to pass through society and get the attendant advantages. But the movie digs further into the complexities of identity. Clare has achieved an illusion of whiteness but she is drawn back to the black community. Clare’s assumed identity as a white woman makes her a figure of desire which complicates the relationship between Irene and Clare. There is a romantic tension between them and it’s played out with subtle beauty; Tessa Thompson conveys Irene’s desire in ways that are unmistakable without being obvious. The theme also plays out in an ongoing conflict between Irene and her husband (André Holland). He wants to educate their boys about the danger of living in a racist society while she wants to shelter them; this subplot creates tangible stakes for Clare’s risk taking and enhances the various themes of identity and denial. The narrative of Passing is well structured. The storytelling is economical with set ups and pay offs occurring across the story and within scenes. The film is also well shot with black and white cinematography framed in the 1.37:1 Academy ratio. This photographic choice connects the movie with its time period and the vertical fame crowds the characters together, creating a claustrophobic impression.
What Doesn’t: The premise of Passing hinges on a significant incredulity. Clare is black passing for white and her husband hasn’t figured out Clare’s true heritage. This means that he married her without ever meeting her family or friends and no one he’s close to ever picked up on Clare’s true racial identity. The fear of Clare’s exposure hangs over the movie which is why Passing gets away with this discrepancy.
DVD extras: Available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Passing is a nuanced drama with terrific performances and skillful filmmaking. The movie is a fascinating web of identity politics that offers a lot to contemplate. Passing is Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut and it is an impressive first feature.
Episode: #886 (January 9, 2022)