Film Review – Passing
Rebecca Hall’s writing and directing debut, Passing (2021) is a lyrical examination of race, identity, and the search for one’s soul. It is an impressive first feature, showcasing complete control of tone, atmosphere, and theme. Where many other new filmmakers may opt to go broad and expressive, Hall goes for understatement and suggestion. Adapting Nella Larsen’s novel, the subject matter is a serious one but Hall never loses focus on the material. She approaches the story like a keen observer, willing to sit back and listen as her characters seek empathy and understanding. She doesn’t get in the way of the narrative – she gives it a platform to freely express itself.
Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) are childhood friends who reconnect in early 20th century New York. The first act is filled with uncomfortable tension. Disguising herself under a low brimmed hat, Irene finds a table at a white restaurant, where she runs into Clare. Where Irene identifies with her black heritage, Clare passes herself as white. Clare uses make up to lighten her skin and has dyed her hair platinum blonde. Eduard Grau’s stark black and white cinematography washes out shades of grey, so that Clare’s skin looks almost as white as her hair. Disturbingly, we discover that Clare has married a disgusting racist, John (Alexander Skarsgård). Not realizing Irene and Clare are both black, John relaxes and spews a tirade of hateful language.
This is an extraordinary scene – shocking in its bluntness. All three performers are absolutely mesmerizing. As Skarsgård’s character goes on his rant, watch how Thompson and Negga both react. Irene is not just appalled to be in the presence of such a hateful person, but that her once close friend has married him. Both Thompson’s and Negga’s eyes tell us everything. Irene looks over to Clare in disbelief, with Clare barely managing to hold her feelings behind a fake smile. They both know that if their ruse is discovered, it would mark their doom. The scene sets the mood for everything else that follows.
When it comes to race, what does it mean to “pass?” It’s not just the act of looking and acting like a different race, but the rejection of one’s identity. Many minority groups, including the black community, are faced with this dilemma as a means of survival. In BlacKkKlansman (2018), John David Washington and Adam Driver’s undercover agents had to deny their black and Jewish upbringings in the face of the Ku Klux Klan. In Bad Hair (2020), Elle Lorraine’s character changed her hair in hopes of furthering her stalled career. The same situation can be applied here, especially with Clare. Clare enjoys a life of wealth and privilege, but by doing so she must conceal who she is at all times. When John notices her skin color constantly changing, he nicknames her “Nig.” Can you guess where that moniker comes from? To exist in such a way must be a living nightmare.
Irene and Clare’s reunion is one of curiosity and perhaps even guilt. They both appear to embody a quality the other longs for, or maybe resents. It’s a friendship of conflicting emotions. When they travel to a party hosted by the Negro Welfare League, Irene sees Clare’s exuberance on the dance floor and yet wonders how she can live in a constant state of secrecy. For Clare, she wants what Irene has – even showing up unannounced at Irene’s Harlem doorstep and ingratiating herself into her inner circle. When Irene asks Clare what she’ll do if John discovers who she is, Clare answers “I’ll move to Harlem with you.” Is Clare earnest in her wish to reconnect with her black ethnicity, or is she simply a tourist stopping by temporarily to enjoy the view?
This question is at the forefront of Passing. All throughout, Hall’s writing and direction has characters confronting the lives they want as opposed to the ones they have. When Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland) tries to teach their sons the horrors of racism, she refuses in hopes of prolonging their innocence. While her sentiment is understandable, it comes off as naïve. Both Irene and Brian are friends with Hugh (Bill Camp) a white author who we think is a supporter but whose fascination with black culture plays condescendingly – as though he were examining black people like a science experiment. The dynamic between Irene, Clare, and Brian borders on a near love triangle. Is Brian’s warmth toward Clare one of honest friendship, or is he swayed by the very façade she has so carefully crafted for herself?
Hall balances these multiple threads with a graceful touch. She sets a patient, methodical style that allows the performances to shine. Occasionally, the editing will break between scenes by inserting shots of the sky or of light shining through trees, creating a lovely, poetic tenor. Above all else, Hall never allows the narrative to devolve into speechifying. For a story that has a black perspective, Hall doesn’t let her whiteness intrude. One of the big problems of Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie (2021) is that the writer/director forced his viewpoint into the proceedings, creating a disturbance that threw the whole piece off kilter. Hall avoids this – she sets the stage and then lets the story to play out organically.
I’m not black, and I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand the experience of a black person living in a racist society. But as a Filipino born in the Philippines and raised in America, I can sense the push and pull these characters have within themselves. How accepting one’s background can conflict in a country where beauty and success has historically been tied to whiteness. That is the intelligence of Passing. By bringing these difficult topics to light, it not only observes what it means to be a certain color, but what it means to be human.