Synopsis: In 1920s New York City, a Black woman finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend who’s passing as white.
Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Director: Rebecca Hall
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Movies are by design a visual medium so it’s always worth noting when one comes along that manages to hit several different senses at one time. Audiences are so trained to respond to what they see flash across the screen in bold exclamation points that a quieter, more fragile film like Passing may require a bit of an adjustment period. As black and white images slowly fade in and come into focus while lilting sounds of voices layer in, the viewer is brought into this dream-like period-piece based on novelist Nella Larsen’s acclaimed, but often little known, 1929 novel. Adapted by actress Rebecca Hall (The Night House) making her directorial debut and streaming on Netflix, it’s a delicate portrait of two women living complex lives nearly a century ago.
Out shopping for a book her children desperately want at an upscale store in New York City, Reenie Redfield (Tessa Thompson, Sylvie’s Love) is “passing” and hoping to not be found out. Her ancestry has allowed the black woman with light skin to move among white society at times, but fear of discovery weighs heavily on Reenie and her marriage to a man of color and children that could not pass makes full immersion in that life impossible. This day however she retreats into a posh whites-only hotel to get out of the heat and is spotted, but not for the reasons she is afraid of.
Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga, Ad Astra) is also at the hotel, sees her childhood friend across the room, and instantly reaches out to reconnect. Married to a smug racist (Alexander Skarsgård, The Aftermath) who isn’t aware of her mixed heritage or her life passing as white, she now longs to be with “her people” and sees Reenie as a lifeline to her past. Used to getting, or rather taking, what she wants, Clare invites herself into Reenie’s circle of friends and community, attending events for the Negro Welfare League and using her allure to charm Reenie’s children and husband Brian (André Holland, A Wrinkle in Time). All this while continuing the charade that she’s a white woman with another life outside the Redfield’s Harlem home.
Don’t think that Passing is some sinewy thriller in the Fatal Attraction vein though. Hall’s film is very much a character study of Clare and Reenie and how both women have adapted to the norms of society, albeit in different ways. Clare has used the advantage of hereditary and a bit of performative ambition to carve out the life of luxury she dreamed of growing up without much of anything while Reenie has found a different way to achieve equality with her neighbor and even the opposite gender. There is a constant threat of danger in the way Clare was living; you get that sense just by the few breathless moments that Reenie felt she was found out in the early part of the movie. To fully live a life passing as white, the film is telling us you had to be willing to deal with the ultimate consequences. Reenie understands this but can’t accept that Clare wants to have it both ways – and that’s where the conflict between the women grows.
The two actresses have a heavy task in balancing their power struggle that rears up in the final act. It’s less of an all-out brawl but there is some maneuvering, though how much of it exists only in the mind of the increasingly tenuous Reenie is debatable. Hall and Thompson go down that instability route bravely and humanely, always paying respect to the high wire both intelligent characters were walking. Thompson’s impressive as always but it’s Negga’s performance that stands out just a little more and I think it’s intentional. Clare is meant to be this galvanizing force that commands attention and draws focus and Negga can only oblige the script and Hall’s sensitive direction.
Shot by Edu Grau (Boy Erased) in a smaller aspect ratio to give it an even greater feeling of the era and largely free of incidental music outside of a rather onerous piano refrain from composer Devonté Hynes (Queen & Slim) that is purposely repetitive to a wincing fault, Passing is just a gorgeous movie from performance to design. Even in black and white you can tell how rich the costumes from Marci Rodgers (BlacKkKlansman) are and see the intricate details in Kristina Porter’s production design. I always worry about how a deliberate film like this will play on a streaming service where a viewer can be easily distracted, and I wish I had seen this on the big screen where I could be totally brought into this experience. There’s little doubt that Hall has made a wonderful first feature; one that engages history, culture, and class in a sophisticated dialogue with two iridescent performances forming its core.