Challenging Perspectives Across the Color Line, Passing Shows That the Grass Isn’t Always Greener
Director: Rebecca Hall
Category: Feature – U.S. Dramatic
Passing has such an interesting premise: the lived experience of two white-passing Black women who live on opposite sides of the color line in 1920’s New York City. Based on Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut delivers on that interesting premise to the fullest extent. Hall’s own experience, finding out her maternal grandfather (who passed away before she was born) was a Black man who lived his life as white-passing, lends an interesting perspective to this complex story that examines the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender in the beautiful black and white film.
Irene (Tessa Thompson, Creed) is a well-established and successful Black woman who briefly crosses the color line in an attempt to find a gift for her son’s birthday in shops on the other side of town. Dressed in a full-length, long sleeve dress with white gloves and a wide-brimmed hat, no one would suspect this relatively fair-skinned woman was not supposed to be where she was. However, by Irene’s behavior, you can tell she is cautious of running into the wrong person who may give her away. While she is visiting the Drayton Hotel, she finds an old friend, Clare (Ruth Negga, Loving), who has dyed her hair blonde and taken up life as a rich, white, socialite married to a wealthy rich white man. Clare is not white, she grew up in Harlem as a Black girl with Irene, but has hidden her identity from her husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard, Big Little Lies), and has cut off contact with anyone from her past. That is until she meets up with Irene again. Clare invites Irene up to her room in the hotel, and her husband arrives shortly after. Her husband then very openly degrades Black people, including saying racial slurs, which Clare laughs and agrees with, and Irene tries to maintain her cover while reluctantly accommodating John’s heinous comments.
When she returns home, after talking with her husband Brian (Andre Holland, Moonlight) about the experience with Clare, she chooses not to interact with Clare going forward. That lasts a very short period of time as Clare, wanting to be in a place where she doesn’t have to hide so much of herself, forces her way into Irene’s friendship and home. The film then follows the two women’s interactions as Irene tries to prescribe to the strict role of a mother, a wife, and middle-class life while Clare is far more flamboyant and dramatic in her personality and behaviors with others at the parties the two host for the Negro Welfare League in their community. Clare longs for the level of freedom Irene appears to have in her own day-to-day life that she has given up pretending to be white and hiding her true self while Irene wishes to have the freedom from social constraints that Clare so clearly exhibits whenever she comes to visit. While the film occasionally moves slowly, it keeps you engaged as you process the characters’ experiences in real-time with them.
Passing is an emotional and thought-provoking film that brings shows the skills of an incredible cast and first-time filmmaker. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are absolute powerhouses in this film. There is so much nuance and fine detail to both of their performances that is completely necessary to tell such a complex story that is so focused on the internal thought process and perception of these characters. These two leads are well supported by brief appearances from Alexander Skarsgard and Andre Holland, providing external counterpoints to flesh out the perspectives of the two women. This may be Rebecca Hall’s first time at the director’s helm, but she navigates the complexities of the characters and story with a masterful hand. Passing is here to make you think, to force you to examine your own perspectives. Let it challenge you and follow the film through all the questions it’s asking within this story.
Review Score: 4.5/5
Where Can You Watch: While the film has not announced if it has been purchased yet, it may be headed to Netflix. As of February 3rd, the film’s producers were negotiating a deal with the streaming service to have rights for distribution, read more here.
Bonus Content: Check out the Q&A with director Rebecca Hall and cast members Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, and Andre Holland on the Sundance Youtube Channel. Watch here