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‘Passing’ Marks a Fluid, Formal Directorial Debut for Rebecca Hall

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga glow in grey in Harlem Renaissance-era New York City.
Passing review
Sundance Institute
By  · Published on January 31st, 2021

Sundance 2021 has come with its fair share of anticipated titles, but few have been so buzzed about as actress Rebecca Hall’s writing and directorial debut, Passing. An adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name, the film follows two white-passing Black women in 1920s New York City who, having been friends in high school, accidentally reunite later in life, only to fall into a thorny yet alluring friendship that comes to change their lives for good.

Clare (Ruth Negga) is a bubbly yet mysterious woman who lives with her white, wealthy, putridly racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård meeting his evil quota) on the opposite side of town she came from. Irene (Tessa Thompson), affectionately known as Reeny, is much more conservative in her lifestyle. She lives quietly in Harlem with her husband Brian (André Holland) and their two children. Irene sees Clare for the first time in years during her first attempt to pass in a white-only tea lounge in the Drayton Hotel. In her success, she finds Clare doing the same, albeit like clockwork. Clare is fair-skinned enough that everyone thinks she’s white, her husband included.

Despite the risk venturing into Harlem poses to her concealed identity, Clare enjoys her first visits with Reeny and Brian, and soon she becomes a regular, sneaking up to Harlem as often as she can, a whole new friendship blossoming as a result. Irene and Brian are comfortable themselves, situated in a fine brownstone near a park. They even have their own maid, whom Reeny treats rudely at times. Privilege and scorn are deciphered in layers throughout the story. As a film about biracial identity and performance, colorism is as central a theme as racism.

In its thoughtfulness and complexity, Passing is not intent on cleanly unpacking what it means to be biracial in America, or what it means to be forced to live performatively, or how difficult it is to consider, much less live with, conceptual fluidity. Candid conversations between the leads mean that crucial aspects of the issues at hand are addressed head-on. But, more than anything, this is a film that, as was custom in the 1920s, leaves things unspoken. Hall knows that many of the questions posed by the story are not questions with answers. They’re questions to be wrestled with, contemplated, felt, and, ultimately, navigated.

It might seem like a peculiar first choice of a film for Hall, but what many people don’t know is that she is biracial herself. Hall presents as white, but she has Black roots. Her maternal grandfather was a Black man who married a Dutch woman. Her biracial mother, Maria Ewing, is a renowned opera singer. After Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker heard Hall’s story and her vision for Passing, they signed on to produce.

For a novella, Larsen’s work covers an immense ground, and Hall attempts to do so as well with as much subtlety and tact as  Larsen’s book is written with. But that ends up being one of Passing’s hang-ups. It isn’t often that a movie can satisfactorily tackle racism, colorism, sexism, classism, sexuality, and infidelity all at once. In this case, issues of race and class rightly take center stage while sexuality and gender are given the occasional lingering thought but otherwise feel thematically absent. Or, at least, they aren’t so smoothly woven into the narrative or the imagery. There is also something missing in the emotional drive. The unknown magic factor that keeps one coming back to films is slightly out of reach. Five to ten minutes of exposition will pass that never seem to get at anything, and almost immediately these sequences evaporate in your memory.

However, it’s worth noting that my insight into Reeny and Clare, their motivations, and the story they inhabit is limited to the experience of a white guy. So, I encourage everyone to read perspectives from those who can draw insights that, simply put, I cannot.

Regardless, Hall deserves credit for her work behind the screen in other ways. Her more formal approach fits the story and time period, and while it leaves a little to be desired, it has a charm to it, especially in the way it frames Harlem – still-images that present an unmoving place in time, all but proven to be indestructible and, much more than that, eternally generative. Think of all the culture, creativity, and life Harlem has fostered, largely from Black and Puerto Rican communities. Take, for instance, the source novella of the film. The neighborhood is prolific enough to have two films representing it at the fest this year, the other being Questlove’s unveiling of footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in Summer of Soul.

Hall captures a glowing Harlem in its heyday (the Harlem Renaissance), using its architectural glory and decadent Italian-inspired interior design to frame what is only one of the thousands of seminal stories that have poured out of the cultural epicenter. It’s the kind of movie whose elegance and decadence leaves you swooning over every little detail, like the prominence of feminine hats, or the inflections and diction choices that give their “casual tone” a proper sound in modern times.

The story is simple enough to invite scrutiny, but it isn’t a story that’s concerned with wowing you. It wants to woo you, to bring you into its fold to feel what Irene and Clare are feeling — more Irene than Clare since it’s told from the former’s perspective. Passing is a graceful, aesthetically magnetic debut breathed to life by radiant performances from Thompson and Negga, who lead a modern period piece dream team. But, as perfect as that sounds, it’s not the masterpiece many predicted.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.