Adapted from the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, Passing tells the story of two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Irene is a Black woman living in Harlem, who occasionally passes for white for convenience. Unlike her long-ago friend Clare who is passing for white full time, married to a businessman in Chicago. The story follows Irene and Clare’s reacquaintance after many years apart. Once Clare recognizes Irene on a day when Irene steps into a white-only space, the two women undergo a rapid emotional and mental journey as they grapple with their current realities, and contemplate what actually makes them happy.
Rebecca Hall’s script and directing are determined to give these women an interiority that would otherwise be missing if a white person were helming this project, or simply someone who lacked the perspective needed to tell the story about Black women battling the will and whims of a society that deems them lesser. Hall, utilizing her family history, provides a delicate yet uncompromising vision to the story. The film tells a nuanced tale of how these two women see that their respective proximity to whiteness impacts their quality of life. In Clare’s case, it is a currency that is unmatched, the freedom in which she is able to move freely in this world is the prize for shielding a part of her history. In less understanding hands, Clare would be a villain for this or at least a woman who is unlikely to garner empathy. By contrast, Irene (the film’s protagonist) would appear more virtuous, especially for her good deeds working with the Negro League. Yet, Irene is not, as she too is playing with societal structures to better her life, specifically aligning herself with the privileges of being middle-class.
Hall gives Irene and Clare ample room to express their desires and their conflicting emotions, as well as highlight their insights into how to survive in an unforgiving environment. While Clare is dancing on the razor’s edge of the colour line, Irene is running from the hardships of Blackness by embracing and maintaining some social superiority through her economic status, as seen with her employment of a Black maid, and avoiding “race issues” while raising two dark-skinned Black boys. Irene doesn’t have the luxury of passing (at least without a ton of effort), but if the option was available to her, she would likely not be so different from Clare.
It is the complexity in the relationship between Irene and Clare that gives Passing that undeniable quality of being required viewing. Hall refrains from overproducing her film or opting for extravagant camerawork. Instead, she has a steady approach that eases her audience through the film, focusing on the subtlety in her actresses’ performances and the subtext of their dialogue with each other and those around them. Hall’s approach brings Larsen’s contemplative writing to life with imagery. Hall takes the full breadth of Larsen’s piece and distills it in a manner that doesn’t sacrifice the central theme of passing (in its many forms including sexual), and creates a dynamic character study that is as rich with interpretation as Larsen’s book. Paired with exquisite set designs and costumes as well as Eduard Grau’s spectacular cinematography, Passing is a pleasure to behold. It is an honourable adaptation that doesn’t lose the heart of Larsen’s writing.
In addition to Hall’s scholarly approach to telling this story and her personal connections guiding her hand, the film could not maintain its illustrious appeal without its stars Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson. The performances by Negga and Thompson are simply exceptional. Negga and Thompson have explosive chemistry that is instantly recognizable upon their first scene. They are both truly superb with how they portray each of their characters’ struggles. From their physical mannerisms, how they speak and how they gaze at one another, both actresses are able to convey so much of the internal lives of their characters effortlessly. Negga, in particular, is astonishing as her character plays with many facets of herself in order to present a certain image, and when alone with Irene is entirely herself–alluding to much more going on behind the pretty smile and bubbly personality. Thompson provides the film with its backbone with a strong lead performance that shoulders the responsibility of conveying such complex thoughts and feelings about race, economic and social class. As well as, delicately playing to her character’s more intimate feelings for Clare.
All in all, Passing is a resounding success as it tackles a multitude of issues with a confident yet delicate approach. Hall’s careful character study allows the film to do more than just tackle the broader issue of passing, but provide us with a contemplative personal drama that challenges us.
Passing is available to stream exclusively on Netflix now