Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star in Rebecca Hall's directorial debut film, Passing

Review: ‘Passing’ is rich, meticulous film about racial identity

Actress Rebecca Hall made her writing and directorial debut with her first feature film Passing, which debuted on Saturday, Jan. 30 at Sundance Film Festival for the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Hall adapts the film from author Nella Larsen’s 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name. 

Passing is an absolutely haunting, psychological film about race, identity, class, and sexuality. It packs a punch and is so rich with detail. 

Synopsis of feature film, Passing

Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class 1920s woman, finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel. Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene wants to steal away, but before she can, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) rushes over to stop her. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, their renewed acquaintance threatens them both.

About Rebecca Hall

Rebecca Hall, director of Passing
Rebecca Hall, director of Passing, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Rebecca Hall is an award-winning British actress. She is known for her roles in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, The Prestige, and so much more. Recently, she has starred in the Primetime Emmy-nominated TV series, Tales from the Loop. Hall pays tribute to author Nella Larsen with her film adaptation of Passing.

In the Q&A segment after the premiere, Hall explained that she wrote the screenplay when she was 25 and had let it “sit and incubate for a long time.” She was unpacking her biracial roots at the time. Her mother, opera singer Maria Ewing, is also a fair-skinned biracial woman. Her maternal grandfather was a light-skinned Black man and passed as white, according to Hall’s interview with the Los Angeles Times

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.

Read our review of Passing

Stellar performances of complex WOC

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson as Clare and Irene respectively in Rebecca Hall's Passing
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson as Clare and Irene respectively in Rebecca Hall’s Passing / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are perfect as Irene and Clare, two childhood friends who meet again from opposite worlds. Irene occasionally dances the line between black and passing as white, while Clare embraces passing as a lifestyle. In fact, Clare’s confidence and beguile shocks Irene when she discovers that Clare’s husband, a racist rich white man (Alexander Skarsgård), doesn’t even know that his wife is black. Yet Irene finds herself envious as well. Thompson and Negga capture little nuances in their exchanges to demonstrate the longing for the other’s worlds. 

Thompson explained in the Q&A segment after the premiere that Irene was a person who “lived very much in her head” and though she doesn’t personally relate to Irene, she understood Irene’s “feeling of responsibility to community.” Regarding the book and understanding Clare, Negga explained that “Clare relishes the fact that she is passing. [But] there’s also the burden of longing. In order to thrive, she’s lost the key to her soul, which is her community.” 

Black and white all over

I loved the black-and-white filming. Hall also shot in 4:3 aspect ratio. Everything struck such nostalgia. Though I rarely watch black-and-white films (the last black-and-white film I watched was The Artist starring Jean Dujardin), I found Hall’s film a visually refreshing experience.

In the Q&A segment after the premiere, when asked about the technical decisions, Hall explained that “it wasn’t just a stylistic choice, it was a conceptual choice.” Hall further elaborated that the decision to shoot in black-and-white “appealed to [her] because I felt it was a story of nuance and gray areas and ambiguity.”

It’s easy to explore the ambiguity

Oftentimes, ambiguity in a film or TV show turns me off. In Passing, ambiguity actually works in its favor. Nothing is exactly what it seems the first time around. Without giving too much plot away, I’ll simplify and explain that in some scenes, you wonder: is Person A angry at Person B or Person C? You as the audience can infer from subtext. Sometimes, the things that are left unsaid can be the most powerful.

Beautiful costume designs

1920s Harlem clothing looks so beautiful on both Thompson and Negga. The actresses are stunning in every scene, from the simple dresses to the partying dance dresses. I wish I knew more about costume design to elaborate on the intricate details but anyone who’s a fan of the Roaring 1920s clothing would also enjoy the film.

Conclusion

Hall impresses us with her writing and directorial debut. So beautifully adapted, Passing is meticulous and gorgeous, with exploring its bold, important themes yet subtle storytelling. Though the film drags a little bit in the middle, overall, I give this film 4.5 out of 5 stars. I can’t wait for more people to watch Passing and to hear the conversations it sparks.

Read more of ChinLin’s articles.

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Featured image credit: AUM Group, Film4, Flat Five Productions

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