On a sweltering summer day, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) is out toy shopping for her children. She’s dressed well-to-do, the store very posh. The camera holds tight on Irene’s back, her hat pulled down below her eyes, her whole body tense. She flusters as she asks the white clerk a question. After making her purchase, Irene heads out to the busy street. Finally the camera pulls back to reveal her face – and the source of her nervousness. Irene is a Black woman in a very white space at a time when this kind of casual mixing was not so common.
Although relieved to be out of the shop, the heat has caught up with her and she nearly passes out. A taxi takes her to a fancy hotel where she intends to take tea and recover herself. The dining room is a sea of white tables, white chairs, white women. Once again a Black woman in a white space, Irene’s expression reads a mixture of nervous yet emboldened. That is, until she comes face to face with her past. A wisp of white-blonde hair, awash in glowing white streams of light. This is Clare (Ruth Negga), soon to be a wrecking ball in Irene’s carefully constructed life.
Based on the Nella Larsen’s groundbreaking novel of the same name, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing follows the aftermath of their lives after Clare rekindles her friendship with Irene. Both light-skinned, Clare has left her life behind to pass as white, going so far as to marry and have a child with a virulent racist rich white man (Alexander Skarsgård). Conversely, Irene has built a respectable life with her doctor husband (André Holland) and their two children in Harlem. Both have chosen lives of upward mobility, filled with rules and regulations that neither quite feel at home navigating.
Like Larsen’s densely layered novella, Hall’s film not only tackles the practice of racial passing and its emotional toll, but the many ways a person might pass in other aspects of their life. While Clare appears all easy charm in comparison to Irene’s more reserved manner, there is a depth of passion just below Irene’s surface, always waiting to be exposed. Thompson’s total control over her body is evident as we see her allow just enough of her attraction towards Clare to show. It’s in the way her breath changes, the way she holds her gaze around her erstwhile friend. Equally, we see it in the tension she has with her husband, the stiffness. Clare has chosen to pass for white for the freedoms it entails in America in the 1920s, just as Irene has chosen heternormative domesticity. Both sacrificed more in their respective bargains than they had realized until confronted with each other as adults.
There is a genius in Hall’s casting of these two actresses. Looking at them with modern eyes, we see them as Black women. We may even wonder how the white society around them didn’t. Hall wants you to interrogate that gaze, then and now. Further, there is an added depth to Irene’s straight-passing through the casting of Thompson, who is openly queer but has been vocal about the tension between her struggle for privacy and the need for bisexual visibilty. Whether purposeful or not, her star persona as a visible queer woman of color shades in subtextual themes within the source material.
Similarly, Passing is an example of the right project for the right filmmaker. Hall first came to Larsen’s novel in her mid-twenties, just as she began to discover her own family’s history of racial passing. You can feel this personal passion pulse throughout the film, within each deliberate placement of the camera, with each gaze. There is not a single composition, camera angle, or cut that doesn’t feel intentional to evoke a feeling or heighten tension, a classical approach to filmmaking that feels rarer and rarer these days. If Hall, like Charles Laughton, only makes this one film, the craft is richer for it.
Partnering with cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man), Hall shoots in luminous monochrome black and white, filling the tight 4:3 with shimmeringly bright whites and nearly translucent greys when Irene and Clare first reunite, later contrasted with the inky black darkness that creeps in as they careen towards the film’s fateful finale. However, the white light is as much an illusion as those dark shadows. The light washes out as much as it illuminates, just as the dark frees as much as it envelopes.
Featuring career-best performances from both Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, Rebeca Hall has crafted an exquisite film. A timeless exploration of identity, community, sexuality, and family, Passing holds a mirror up to American society, and dares to ask us what it is we truly value and the price we’re willing to pay to achieve it.
“Passing” is in limited theatrical release and premieres Wednesday on Netflix.