Sundance Review: “Passing”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 98 minutes
Writer/Director: Rebecca Hall
Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp

By Morgan Roberts

Based on the 1929 novella of the same name, “Passing” (2021) is a look at racial identity, gender, sexuality, and class. The film follows childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) who reconnect later in life. Irene lives her life as a Black woman and passes as white from time to time for convenience. Clare, however, has chosen live life as a white woman, likely continuing to do so due to her husband John’s (Alexander Skarsgård) racist viewpoint. Hence, the title “Passing.”

As a white writer, I feel a ill-equipped to be able to discuss the nuances of racial identity explored in the film. But I simply want to touch on a few things. The film is brilliantly shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Eduard Grau, which adds an element to the story. It not only strips the pre-conceived structure color provides, but start to put us in the era by simply creating the feel of a film from that time period.

“Thompson and Negga are truly impressive in their roles. Thompson portrays a smart, astute woman, keenly aware of her place due to gender and race.”

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in Passing by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Thompson and Negga are truly impressive in their roles. Thompson portrays a smart, astute woman, keenly aware of her place due to gender and race. What I found truly intriguing was her character’s hesitancy to discuss race with her sons who are both darker. Her husband, Brian (André Holland) wants to make their sons aware of lynching’s and other acts of violence such a racists slurs. Irene wants to further the community while also trying to ignore the violence perpetrated against Black people.

Clare, on the other hand, begins to long for the community she left years before. While she has spent her adult life enjoying the privileges of the upper class white society she married into, she also begins to recognize a part of her identity she was missing. A piece to her puzzle she did not know was elsewhere until seeing Irene. Negga is electrifying as Clare. From the moment we see her on screen, we are instantly drawn to her.

In addition to race, gender and sexuality are explored. There are times when you do not know if Irene is drawn to Brian or Clare when the three go out together for functions. Irene is a very introspective character, only giving you bits and pieces of what she is thinking through dialogue, and Thompson conveys so much through a look or a gesture.

“With incredible performances, stunning cinematography, and the keen eye of [Rebecca] Hall, “Passing” is an instant classic film.”

With the film newly acquired by Netflix, it has the opportunity for a wider audience and for proper rewatches. For Rebecca Hall, her first time behind the camera felt extremely sophisticated and seasoned. You would think that this was a director decades into their career rather than their feature directorial debut. It felt unlike any other film at Sundance. It felt polished; it makes sense. Hall not only has the lineage that ties her to the material but is the daughter of the late Sir Peter Hall, one of the most important theater directors in UK history. Her direction felt effortless which makes the layers she was able to add not just in the direction of the film but in the screenplay all the more impressive. If this is her first film behind the camera, I am delighted at what other stories Hall will be bringing us in her writing and directing.

“Passing” is a film which is explores themes rooted in history and relevant to today. With incredible performances, stunning cinematography, and the keen eye of Hall, “Passing” is an instant classic film.

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