In her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s novel about race relations in 1920s New York with her film Passing. The film stars Tessa Thompson as Irene, a light-skinned black woman who ventures into the city, passing as white as she runs errands and enjoys tea time at a fancy hotel. At home she lives a comfortable life with her black husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two children. One day she reunites with an old friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who is also passing for white however lives more boldly and is married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no clue about Clare’s background. Clare is intrigued by Irene’s life in the black community and ventures into the world she left behind. As Clare spends less time passing, she and Irene develop an intense queer connection that threatens to destroy their marriages and possibly their relationship.
Passing is devastatingly beautiful. The film was shot in black-and-white which speaks to the binary set by culture but also makes us think about these constructs are arbitrary. The cinematography is stunning. For those who love the era, there are plenty of visual splendors to take in. The actresses wear gorgeous period appropriate costumes. (I secretly wanted to steal all of Tessa Thompson’s cloche hats).
Thompson and Negga are brilliant as Irene and Clare. Their movements are gentle and methodical; almost like a choreographed dance. Andre Holland delivers a powerful performance as the troubled Brian. The movie is less about passing as it is about the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, queer identity and the segregation of white and black communities. Rebecca Hall, who is mixed race and has some African-American heritage on her mother’s side, offers viewers a stunning film with plenty of food for thought.
Passing premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their U.S. Dramatic Competition.