A film review by Craig J. Koban November 24, 2021

Rank: #12


2021, PG-13, 98 mins.

Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield  /  Ruth Negga as Clare Kendry  /  André Holland as Brian Redfield  /  Alexander Skarsgård as John  /  Bill Camp as Hugh  /  Gbenga Akinnagbe as Dave  /  Antoinette Crowe-Legacy as Felise

Written and directed by Rebecca Hall, based on the novel by Nella Larsen


PASSING marks the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall (whose work as an actress I've admired for many years, in films as far ranging as THE TOWN to THE PRESTIGE to VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA).  This Netflix produced period drama - based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen - has been Hall's passion project for quite some time, not to mention a deeply personal one (she learned that her own grandfather was a black man that tried to live as white).  

The central storyline has allowed Hall to reflect upon and process her own family ties of the distant past in terms of also telling a tale of women that are subjugating their ethnic heritage in order to acclimate to white society, and she does so with two routinely fine actresses in Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson front and center.  Beyond the film's intriguing technical merits (more on that in a bit), PASSING is a remarkably poised piece of filmmaking for a directorial greenhorn, and one that thoughtfully delves into themes of identity, self worth, race relations, and how the three are inordinately intertwined.   

Set in the 1920s, PASSING introduces us to Irene (Thomson), who's a light skinned African American trying to live in Jim Crow America.  She longs to live the free and prosperous life of a white woman, but still holds onto her black heritage.  Irene is not totally downtrodden, though, as she has a handsome doctor for a husband in Brian (Andre Holland), two loving children, and a nice home.  Here worldview is shattered with the re-emergence of an old friend back into her life in Claire (Negga), another light skinned black woman that has gone through the definite ringer in life (she was left orphaned after her father's death and was placed under the care of white relatives).  

Their unexpected meet-up occurs early in PASSING in one of the film's many fascinating scenes of small scale tension and intrigue: On a particularly hot summer day, Irene finds refuse in a posh New York hotel restaurant that mostly caters to white patrons.  This leaves Irene feeling like a pilgrim in an unwanted land, but upon hooking back up with Claire she's stunned to learn that (a) she's actually trying to pass as a white woman and (b) the charade is so good that she even is able to fool her racist white husband in John (Alexander Skarsgard).  Despite this mind blowing reveal, Irene and Claire reflect on their past memories of an old friendship shared years ago.  Making matters mightily awkward is the fact that John really seems to go out of his way to relay how much he detests black people because, well, Claire's deception is simply that convincing. 

Afterwards, Irene seems convinced that what Claire is doing is wrong and seems pretty unwilling to meet back up with her again on principle, but when Claire shows up at her doorstep one day unannounced she realizes that severing her ties with this woman will be quite tricky.  More than anything, Irene grows to find Claire as an endlessly compelling case study for how she's "passing" herself off as a white woman instead of black.  Both women, from a certain perspective, seem to be living fairly well off lives, but Claire is easily the more emotionally doomed of the pair, stemming mostly from her loneliness in having to carry the immensity of her deception to herself and no one else in her family.  She also gets further and further apart from her real heritage in her attempts to constantly disassociate away from it.  Irene also has her share of problems and stress, albeit of a vastly different variety.  Her husband is well meaning and caring, but cracks are beginning to form in the marriage.  Complicating everything is the potential for the black hearted bigot that is John discovering Claire's ruse, which could end really badly for everyone involved. 



Hall makes some truly interesting stylistic choices here in PASSING, the most obvious being shooting the entire film in an old school 1.33:1 Academy ratio, which is not only a cheaper option considering the lower budget she has, but it also harkens back to an era of yesteryear for the movies themselves in terms of how they were actually shot.  Eduard Grau's black and white cinematography is suitably dreamlike, which helps foster an aura to the story that Irene is submerging herself into the imagined world of her former friend.  There are also expressionistic moments that are littered throughout the film, which helps give PASSING an ethereal glow that's uniquely its own.  In many ways, Hall's film makes for a compelling companion piece to THE LIGHTHOUSE, which also was shot with the square ratio and in black and white.  Both films could not be anymore different, but in terms of aesthetic they both utilize the more horizontally condensed frame to visually suggest the claustrophobia that their respective characters experience.  PASSING is about Claire's faux world slowly closing in on her, making Hall's framing here all the more effective. 

PASSING also oddly reminded me of Spike Lee's BLACKKKLANSMAN in terms of both containing stories that feature characters having to engage in elaborate culture-hiding deceptions in order to infiltrate white society...and a racist one at that.  The time period of Prohibition Era New York in PASSING  adds a whole other layer of contextual meaning, especially with Jim Crow looming rather large over the heads of every African American.  Claire engages in more of a lower scaled deception early on in the film for entering that slick restaurant, hoping that no one will suspect that she's black.  Claire, on the other hand, has taken her self-imposed lie to a whole other level of obsession.  The real sadness that typifies Claire is that she has done so much to subvert who she is in order to fit into a society that she desperately yearns for, meaning that any attempts to go back will have a devastating impact.  PASSING becomes more intuitively layered as it progresses, mostly for how it deals with duality and the difficulty associated with selling false facades.  Claire and Irene exist in a racist society, to be sure, but the real nail biting tension that's derived in PASSING is not in its outright portrayal of it, but rather in its implied and looming threat to come if Claire's found out.  That's what makes watching the film especially terrifying, in a low key kind of way. 

The dicey moral quandary that PASSING places viewers in is a taxing one.  Is Claire right in her choices?  This is 1920s America, after all, and a deeply repressive world at that.  Hall doesn't easily hold audience members by the hand to spoon feed simply and easily digestible answers.  Helping her cause is the bravura performances by her two leads, with both Thompson and Negga doing career high work here while trying to navigating some very tricky characters.  For those that only know Thompson for her recent high profile MCU work, she's kind of a revelation here playing Irene as a woman that wants to distance herself from Claire's subterfuge, but at the same time finds herself hopelessly and hypnotically ensnared into it.  The entire film is basically told through Irene, but it's mostly about her vicariously experiencing things through Claire's complex attempts to disguise herself from everyone.  Negga is an actress that I've greatly admired before (look at her mostly forgotten, but sensational Oscar nominated work in the dreadfully underrated LOVING), and her performance as Claire is one of colliding layers: She's outwardly happy and content in living a lie, but inside it's crushing her.  What makes PASSING so ultimately haunting is that Claire knows that she can only carry on this deception for so long.  How utterly depressing. 

A lion's share of the credit really needs to go to first time filmmaker Hall, who layers PASSING with an uncommon sensitivity that easily could have been botched by any other filmmaker, novice or not.  She not only boldly envisions her period drama with a distinctive visual look, but she also displays an uncommon affinity for tackling the complex ideas and themes that are at the source novel's very core.  PASSING works not only as a travelogue human drama into the past by showing two black women trying as they can to live in a deeply intolerant time and place, but it's also a deeply intimate portrait of its female characters that just so happen to be trapped within racial, social and class line distinctions that hurt them both in different ways.  If there were a criticism that I would levy on PASSING then it would be that it's sometimes a bit slow moving out of the gate (at just 90-plus minutes, it sometimes feels like two hours-plus) and it will require patience from many viewers, but once you become invested in these characters that are on a collision course that will end with pain and misery it's an awfully hard film to shake. 

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