Runtime: 98 minutes
Director: Rebecca Hall
Writers: Rebecca Hall, Nella Larsen (novella)
Actors: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, Alexander Skrasgard, Bill Camp
By Tom Moore
Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut touches on a unique story on “racial passing” through excellent performances and depictions that burrow into your mind with “Passing” (2021).
“Passing”, which is based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, follows the reunion of two mixed race high school friends during their adulthood as they examine and become more involved in each other’s distinctly different ways of living. While Reenie (Tessa Thompson) identifies as African American and is married to a black doctor named Brian (Andre Holland), Clare (Ruth Negga) “passes” as white and has married a prejudiced white man named John (Alexander Skarsgard). The term “passing” refers to African Americans with light enough skin to pass as white. It’s tough to think if we’ve ever gotten a story focused on mixed race treatment like “Passing” and Hall does a great job making it impactful through its characters and especially through the film’s black and white cinematography from Eduard Grau.
“Passing” has one of the most effective uses of black and white cinematography as it utilizes a high contrast to create a visual difference between Reenie and Clare. While the darker tones of Reenie’s skin still come through, Clare is depicted with much brighter, whiter skin that reflects her passing. For modern audiences, it might be tougher, visually, to see what passing really looks like in color so it’s absolutely striking to see the visual difference between Reenie and Clare in this way. It’s excellent visual storytelling that works well throughout and there are even moments with Clare where her cinematography changes as she gains more darker tones when fitting in more with Reenie and the black community. She’s shown as sort of a chameleon which is fitting to Negga’s performance.
Negga has this emotional balancing act as Clare that makes her performance and Clare’s character so complex. She sort of just tries to fit in wherever she is and although it can seem like Clare is just selfish in the way that she tries to live two lives for her own benefit, Negga maintains this sense of survival and hurt in her performance that makes her chameleon-like behavior mean something more. Hall and Negga handle Clare with care in making her aspirations for a better life understandable and it’s easy to see that there’s still a part of her that wants what Reenie has.
Thompson also delivers a compelling performance in bringing out Reenie’s subtle disgust for Clare’s choice to pass in life yet is intrigued and almost jealous of what she has because of it. Reenie’s constant self-reflection on whether Clare is right or wrong for passing and everyone else’s views of her really spark thought on the situation as a whole. It’s another performance handled with care and deep reflection from Thompson and Hall’s careful direction and the aspects of Reenie fighting with Brian about how they should be raising their sons in the U.S., where black men are being publicly lynched, adds another layer to her character. Also, it’s worth giving a shoutout to Holland for his performance as well as he plays a great counterpoint to Reenie’s view of Clare and their children that adds more complexity and perspective to the story.
Now, “Passing” isn’t necessarily the type of story that gives fulfilling answers in the moment as its more of a thought exploration on the concept of passing and its characters. Rather than have these explosive bouts that create a monumental change in characters, Hall just lets things play out for the most part and doesn’t create a definitive answer for viewers to work off of. This approach can make the story and overall experience feel a little light at times and have it seemingly move sort of slow. It’s even easy to feel a little lost in the moment with characters’ beliefs and leave “Passing” not exactly sure what to take away from it. However, “Passing” is one of those films that burrows itself in your mind and leaves you thinking about the characters and the meaning of passing.
Hall’s more passive approach with “Passing” actually pays off well in not dictating how viewers are meant to interpret Clare and Reenie and leaves things more open to spark conversation and thought. It allows for Reenie, Clare, and other character’s views to be expressed freely without them being steered into right or wrong roles. It adds in multiple perspectives on whether passing is sort of a traitorous act with how Clare is now benefiting off the white privilege that hurts so many other people she knows or if she sees it as her sole chance at her wealthy aspirations because she lives in a system/society that wants to make her nothing. It makes Reenie more complex in her views of passing and makes you wonder if she kind of does the same thing with her middle-class lifestyle and the way that she too passes for convenience. It especially allows for the conversations between Reenie and Brian about making their children aware of the hate crimes and racial discrimination around them more compelling because it’s just an open conversation rather than this overly dramatic fight. Maybe in the moment “Passing” doesn’t necessarily have this great impact because there’s no clear decisiveness, but Hall’s approach makes it so it stays ingrained in your head to digest all its perspectives.
Hall’s already had some standout moments in 2021 in front of the camera with “Godzilla Vs. Kong” and her phenomenal lead performance in “The Night House”, but now she gets to add an excellent feature directorial debut to that with “Passing”. Her impactful approach leaves you thinking about its conversations around passing and its excellent performances and striking cinematography add to its depth and thought-provoking nature.