In Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing, which is adapted from Nella Larsen’s seminal work of the same name, she tells the story of two biracial women in the 1920s, Harlem Renaissance. The movie is a shimmery period drama that floats through the past and builds tension. Shot in black and white and in 4:3 aspect ratio, Hall enlists Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as the women, whose lives are in contrast with each other. It’s gorgeous and gut-wrenching to sit back and watch these women rekindling their friendship. There is a hint of mystery that surrounds them, even erotic, as something might have happened between them in the past.
The film introduces Irene Redfield (Thompson), who picks up a doll dropped by a white woman and walks up to the cashier to inquire. She hides her face using her hat, never fully looking at the clerk and wandering out of the store. It’s a hot day in New York, and she heads over to a hotel and sits in a hall surrounded by a white interior. Irene notices a woman sitting across from her and gets confused when the woman recognizes her. This woman is Irene’s childhood friend from Chicago, Clare (Negga), who appears as a white-passing woman. Clare introduces Irene to her white, racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård). After their encounter, Irene decides to keep some distance from Clare but she manoeuvres herself to Irene’s house and life.
Irene and Clare’s lives are the opposites of each other. Clare’s husband has no idea that she is Black and continued this charade when she had a baby with him. While Irene lives in Harlem with her husband Brian (Andres Holland), a doctor and their two boys. In a scene where Clare tells her that she was relieved upon finding out that her child didn’t have darker skin. She continues to tell Irene that she doesn’t want to have kids anymore, due to the fear that her kids might have dark skin and John might find out. When Irene shares that she is married to a Black man, Clare seems surprised, and Irene adds that her family cannot be invisible or hide away from their appearance. As they talk about their past, John walks in and calls Clare a racist nickname and adds that, when they met, Clare was once a “lily-white” and getting darker every day. Uncomfortable and offended by what happened, Irene leaves and hopes that she never sees her again.
Part of the reason why Hall chose to adapt this movie into a feature-length film is her family’s history. A few years before she started working on the film, Hall learned that her maternal grandfather was a Black man passing as white in America. In some ways, Passing meant a lot to Hall as she explored the complex themes of the movie and navigated the challenges of shooting a black and white movie. Filled with erotic undertones and beautifully composed shots, Hall’s movie explores the different realities of the two women. Their friendship is dangerous, and yet, the desire to build each other with jealousy and destruction.
The performances by Thompson and Negga are powerful and emotionally evocative. Thompson internalizes Irene’s fears and behaviour, often limiting herself to the vows of motherhood and marriage. Whereas, Clare is more energetic, the complete opposite of her friend, and cares less about what might happen when John finds out the truth. It is melodramatic and destructive, as Thomspon and Negga play devastating characters that carry the burdens of destructive friendships and want to live more freely.
Passing is a thought-provoking, daring and beautifully shot black and white film. It is an emotional journey of two women that wish to be free of the norms in society while also longing to be free and live however they want. This theme is resonated throughout the movie, and the queer undertones between Clare and Irene are portrayed with utmost delicacy. Passing is an interesting and remarkable exploration of passing in America. The performances are alluring and emotionally resonated on screen. Hall makes a stand-out debut with Passing and its impact and thoughtful.