Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga will star in the movie about 1920s Harlem and the idea of racial passing.
Rebecca Hall is prepared to make the transition from actress to writer-director with a self-adapted story from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel “Passing,” according to Deadline. The film will take the name of its source material, of which has been recognized as one of the major African-American modernist canon texts. This is a result of the concept of race-transitioning explored throughout and the complexity of the two women at the forefront of it all. Tessa Thompson and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga (Loving) will take on the roles.
Set in the years before the Wall Street crash, Passing follows the contrasting lives of childhood friends Clare Kendry (Negga) and Irene Redfield (Thompson) and the troubles that unfold once the pair reacquaint as adults. An increasing fascination with one another’s lives is fraught with the fact Kendry has always passed as white for her husband. A downward spiral in the women’s relationship eventually leads to scandal and tragedy played out in an infamous final act.
Passing stands out as one of the few period dramas to front black female protagonists. Recently, news of Octavia Spencer’s C.J. Walker biopic affirmed that there is plenty space for the stories of historic black women on screen, and the plight to get them there is being dealt with by capable hands. Similarly, Amma Asante’s 2014 costume drama Belle and her upcoming World War II drama Where Hands Touch both feature black women in leading roles. Where there is a gap, there are features filling it, and Passing is a story worthy of being presented to audiences.
Having recently starred in the under-seen romantic period drama Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Hall appears to have made a heavily conscious choice about the themes she wishes to portray on screen. Not only does Passing deal with racial injustice, but the narrative also explores themes of light-skin prejudice, mixed-race identity, class status, and the Great Migration of the 1920s, which provides the backdrop for the story. Many of these factors are more than relevant today.
The Greatest Showman actress Zendaya caused a conversation in April of this year by stating “I am Hollywood’s acceptable version of a black girl and that has to change.” She too is set to star in and produce a similar feature to Passing, an adaptation of Karin Tanabe’s novel “The Gilded Years,” which tells the story of a light-skinned black woman set to graduate from college in the late 1800s.
A light-skin bias in the film industry has been precedent for some time now. Despite this, the likes of Ryan Coogler’s choice to emphasize dark-skinned women as Black Panther’s Wakandan heroines was applauded for extending representation to what it should be. Within racial prejudice, there are multiple layers, something which Passing explores. Although Negga and Thompson are not particularly two actresses to defy such a colorism bias, the confrontation of it within Passing highlights the issue enough to direct attention towards it.
Also notable are more emotive elements to the tale; jealousy, intrigue, and secrets between the two women elevate Passing beyond just a social commentary. Its complexity may be a real treat to watch unravel on screen if done right.
This, in turn, brings the questioning of Hall’s stature as a white woman directing a primarily black story. Not only the director but also the one to have adapted the novel to screenplay, Hall’s perspective will undoubtedly have an impact on the lens through which Larsen’s story is presented. The aspects of motherhood, marriage, and gender conventions interwoven in the story may be capably covered, yet an understanding of mixed-race identity and light-skin prejudice are likely factors which require a deeper acknowledgment on her part. Hall’s own experience with these facets are arguably different to what a woman of color may have been through, as well as the dynamic of the relationship between emotion and telling a story dealing with racial discrimination in such a head-on manner.
However, Hall’s initial words on her part in Passing shows a respect for the story and even a personal side to her motive as a director. “I came across the novel at a time when I was trying to reckon creatively with some of my personal family history, and the mystery surrounding my bi-racial grandfather on my American mother’s side,” she said. “In part, making this film is an exploration of that history, to which I’ve never really had access.”
The producers for Passing include Margot Hand (Tumbledown) of Picture Films and Oren Moverman (The Messenger) of Sight Unseen, with filmmaker Angela Robinson (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Herbie: Fully Loaded) serving as executive producer. All three have worked with Hall before on features. Having chosen what seems like a trusted cohort of producers behind her, Hall seems well prepared for her directorial debut.