[Editor’s Note: This is a re-post of our review from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Passing is now on Netflix]
We know race is a construct, and yet it has had very real consequences. Black people were enslaved and even after emancipation, they were subject to new forms of bigotry and oppression. However, because race is a construct, it can also be manipulated, which is the subject of actress’ Rebecca Hall’s writing/directing debut Passing. Rather than simply take an obvious stance like “Racism is bad,” Hall, who it should be noted appears to be Caucasian but is the daughter of opera singer Maria Ewing, who is of African-American descent (I note this because at first glimpse, it looks like Hall is a white woman making a movie about race when her background tells us that this is a personal story to her), delves into the more complicated, personal issues of jealousy, anger, and alienation about who gets to move about in society based solely on their skin tone. With thoughtful visuals and strong performances from her cast, Hall makes a confident debut behind the camera with Passing.
Set in New York City in 1929, Irene (Tessa Thompson) bumps into her old friend from Chicago, Claire (Ruth Negga). While Irene can pass for white, she chooses to live in Harlem and embrace life as a Black woman with her successful husband Brian (André Holland) and their two children. Claire, however, chooses to pass as a white woman, and even her racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) doesn’t know his wife is Black. Irene feels some trepidation about rekindling her friendship with Claire, who has the freedom to move between worlds while Irene is conscious of her own limitations. But Irene is also uncomfortable with race, trying to protect her young sons from the harsh realities of their world while also being somewhat ignorant of the way she treats her darker-skinned maid. As Claire works to ingratiate herself with Irene’s family, Irene becomes even more circumspect about her old friend.
What makes Passing so indelible is that Hall approaches it foremost as a character drama rather than simply having two characters pontificate about race in America. The story is told from Irene’s perspective, and through Thompson’s reliably excellent work, we can see all the insecurities, jealousies, and fears that Claire’s presence creates. Hall and Thompson are magnificent at putting us in Irene’s headspace so that we understand the stakes for this character and her complicated web of emotions. To Irene, Claire represents both a temptation and an insult. If you could move through the world unencumbered, why wouldn’t you take that chance? And the answer is that to live that way is to live a lie even though race is a construct. Claire longs for the embrace of Irene’s Black friends and husband, but she doesn’t want to suffer any of the indignities they’ll endure.
Rather than lecturing the audience about to feel, Hall moves with total assurance and patience. She lets the long silences linger. She relies on visual language to convey ideas like using mirrors to convey the complicated ways Irene sees herself. The black-and-white photography could have been overbearing in lesser hands, but Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau make it an effective tool of the various gradations permeating Irene’s world. Again,Passing is more a movie about psychology than politics or even society, and so Hall’s efforts are essential for letting us see the world through Irene’s eyes.
Some may be put off by some of the melodrama swirling around certain scenes, especially with regards to Irene and Brian’s marriage. And yet even those melodramatic bits felt like part of the larger piece rather than overwrought distractions. Passing walks a fine line between interpersonal drama and a larger societal issue, but when everything is grounded in character, you can sell the more intense moments without feeling like it’s an exaggerated reality. It also all comes back to the fact that all the tension in the film springs from what Claire represents to Irene and how Irene’s own blind spots and insecurities surface from her fears and ambivalence.
The more I think about Passing, the more impressed I am by what Hall has achieved here. This is not an easy story, and simply lecturing people on racism probably isn’t effective since most people believe they’re not racist. By turning inward on her characters, Hall has crafted a powerful story about the psychological toll the construct of race takes upon Black people who are told that their very identity is somehow less-than simply because of their skin color.
KEEP READING: ‘Passing’ Trailer Features Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in Rebecca Hall’s Directorial Debut About the Spectrum of Race