To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, Passing is a black-and-white drama film based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. The film is written, produced, and directed by Rebecca Hall in her feature directorial debut and stars Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, and Alexander Skarsgård. The story follows Irene Redfield, a Black woman living in Harlem, and her childhood friend, Clare Bellew. Both women are light enough to be perceived as white, but while Irene rarely chooses to “pass” as White and is married to a Black doctor, Clare “passes” as White all the time and is married to a wealthy racist White man from Chicago. Despite this Irene and Clare begin to rekindle their friendship.
The most interesting thing about Passing is that it explores a phenomenon that still occurs today whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Rebecca Hall does a fantastic job in making doing such a thing feel so silly and trivial yet it still carries a necessary weight and relevance to society. Hall had the film shot in black-and-white and it works for the story on a couple of levels. First, it helps firmly set the viewer into the realization that this is all going on in the past. Second, it allowed Hall to cast Black actresses who cannot pass as White normally in the main roles. This is because the film being in black-and-white makes their skin tone appear a lot lighter than it would if the film were in color. So this creates a bit of a disconnect because Irene and Clare have very distinct Black features but it still works for the way this film is being presented.
You can tell that Passing was a labor of love for Rebecca Hall as her mother and grandfather could pass for White. Her mother did not even know what she was in therefore could not confirm to Hall when she was younger that she was indeed a biracial woman. She had to find out when she was older, which has created a plethora of feelings and questions for her. Forcing Hall to seek out answers which Nella Larsen’s novel helped her find. The legacy of passing opens up a wider question of ethnicity and race. If your grandparents chose to pass there is an entire part of your family’s history that is hidden. If you find out later in life how are you supposed to feel about that? Do you now identify as a Black person because deep down your bloodline someone was Black? Is it even ethical to do so if you never had the opportunity to know that history beforehand? This is the trauma that racism has caused around the world. Passing has hurt many people by defrauding them of their ancestry. Touching on the one-drop rule; where one drop of Black blood in your genealogy meant you were a Black person. So, by that standard, Rebecca Hall would be considered a Black person even though she has spent most of her formative years as White.
Cinematographer Eduard Grau does a great job at making the film feel like it came out in the early 1900s. The black-and-white color grading coupled with the close-up shots and simplistic sets helps firmly set the audience in the past. There is also the way silence is used in the film in conjunction with the score being low helps the film feel more like it was shot in the early 1900s. When there is dialogue there is rarely any background music allowing the audience to truly hear what’s going on without the film persuading their emotional response to the scene with background music. This elevates the film to a certain degree as it allows the viewer more autonomy.
The acting in this film is phenomenal with Ruth Negga turning in a performance that is different than anything she has done before. Clare is flamboyant and friendly to a fault. Some might consider Clare the villain of the film with how she is choosing to live her life. It’s not enough that Clare is passing for White and married to a White man. It’s that she is married to a racist White man. Her husband John is shown as somewhat naïve in that he has noticed his wife’s darker skin tone but doesn’t care because he knows she’s not Black because he has met some of her White family members. Clare is later shown to possibly regret her choice in life as she starts hanging out more with Irene in Harlem.
Tessa Thompson also turns in a great performance as the more introverted Irene. There is a great scene when Irene finds out about John’s racism shortly after reuniting with Clare. It is obviously disheartening when Irene learns that John does not have any interaction with Black people at all and only bases his knowledge off of what other people tell him and what he reads. The worst is the fact that because of Clare’s darkening skin tone he refers to her by the nickname Nig which is short for nigger. During the scene, everyone laughs, but you can tell Irene is disgusted at Clare. Irene does not understand how Clare can even think that this is okay and that she’s toeing the line between keeping her secret and John finding out.
My only issue with Passing is that the story is somewhat lacking. There is a section in the middle where it feels like nothing is happening to move the story forward. The premise is so interesting and there could’ve been a more dramatic touch sprinkled throughout the entire film. I think part of this is due to the lack of Alexander Skarsgård’s John. We should’ve seen more of Clare’s married life juxtaposed with Irene’s. Seeing more of her family dynamic would have made the end of the film more emotional for the characters involved.
This is a fine directorial debut for Rebecca Hall and it only makes me more interested in what she will direct next. I give Passing a Solid 6.9/10. The phenomenon of passing is very interesting and it is recommended that everyone look it up. After watching this with myself and finding out about Rebecca’s Halls history I had to look up if there any other celebrities who are technically Black in the amount will astonish you.