This film was screened as a part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
It’s an incredibly hot day in New York City when Irene (Tessa Thompson) decides to venture further down Manhattan to do a bit of shopping. Browsing through white-occupied shops, she picks up a “pickaninny” doll dropped by a white woman, before sauntering to the cash register to make an inquiry to the clerk. While navigating her way through the store, her hat closely guards her face, leaving just enough to make a little bit of eye contact, but not a lot. She drops by a hotel, after which a woman begins making not so discrete eye contact with her. Both want to make a move but they aren’t sure what to do.
It’s a quiet, simmering tension that lasts throughout the gorgeous, black and white 1920s set Passing, all through its 4:3 aspect ratio. Just as the woman gets up to come speak to her, Irene begins to leave, clearly believing that her cover is blown since a white woman with blonde hair is about to confront her. But the woman recognizes Irene and Irene is confused at how this white woman can know her. She then realizes that the woman is not white, and she is actually Clare (Ruth Negga), a friend from her childhood back in Chicago. Clare is very interested in knowing about Irene’s life now. Irene doesn’t quite feel the same but is definitely intrigued about how this blonde, white appearing woman is her childhood friend. She takes her old pal up on her offer to catch up over tea. Their chance reunion sets off a course of events that will unsettle the seemingly idyllic pattern of both of their lives.
As the feature directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall, she decided to adapt Nella Larson’s seminal work. Hall connected to this story as her mother was a mixed-race woman considered to be white-passing. In a prior statement, Hall said that she found the novel at a time when she “was trying to reckon creatively with some of my personal family history and the mystery surrounding my biracial grandfather on my American mother’s side.”
Clare and Irene operate on two completely different planes. Clare is married to her white husband (Alexander Skarsgard), who has no clue she is biracial, even to the point where he gives her racial slur nicknames because she was once “lily-white” and is getting darker by the day. In fact, Clare is so deeply entrenched in the facade, her husband mentions that she hates Black folks even more than him and can’t stand to be around them. Irene is the polar opposite as she lives in Harlem with her doctor husband, Brian (Andre Holland) and their two boys. They are well-respected in the community and Irene helps lead the Negro Welfare League.
Initially, Clare seemed surprised that Irene was married to a Black man and said that she was so afraid that her own child would have a darker complexion. Feeling both awkward and offended, Irene leaves, but she hasn’t left Clare’s mind. Clare continues to write to her but Irene doesn’t know how to respond and also doesn’t want to blow her friend’s cover, afraid of what her husband may do when he finds out. It’s not until Clare pops up on Irene that we see that she is actually yearning to be in Harlem. She wants to be around Black people. Though Irene is skeptical, she allows Clare to engrain herself into her life and the Harlem community. She connects with Irene’s maid, she becomes friends with her young boys and even gets along with Brian, who thought there was something disturbed about her. Negga effortlessly channels Clare’s switch, bringing to life her confliction and sincerity. It’s a big and bold performance for the quiet movie, contrasting to Thompson’s more muted contemplation.
Soon, what Irene initially may have clocked as an obsession on Clare’s part seems to fit right into her life. The simmering tension, appearing to be sexual in nature, is part of the underlying queer subtext of the film but like its source material, never gets overt about it. Hall is clear about the juxtaposition, interesting moments where Irene’s stares longingly at Clare’s bare back in a dress and grabs her hand, right before they are interrupted. But it’s not only sexual, Irene yearns for Clare’s spontaneity and adventure-prone attitude. It is an attitude that Irene could apply to herself as she wants to hide the horrors of being Black in America from her sons, much to Brian’s chagrin. On the other hand, Clare simply wants Irene’s Black, upper-class lifestyle.
The film comes from Irene’s perspective, a smart move of Hall’s as we never know what’s actually up with Irene and what her true intentions and motivations are. Not only that, since we are seeing it from Irene’s vantage point, as the movie’s tone shifts along with Irene’s perception of it all, we too begin to see Clare as a potential threat? But is she? Irene is convinced there is an affair going on but is it because she wants Clare to herself….maybe them both? The always great Holland, portraying Brian’s matter-of-fact confusion, counters the jealousy and paranoia.
Passing is as good as its performances and rests on their shoulders. Negga is the film’s powerful secret weapon, proving every bit that she deserved the Academy Award back in 2017 for Loving. Even the performance she’s loud and boisterous when needed, she meets the film back at its quiet pace whenever needed with ease. Thompson’s place in the film is completely different and she goes there when she needs to and keeps up with Negga, especially when she reigns in her own facade when it starts to crack. The score from Dev Hynes, fresh off of his equally-as intoxicating work on HBO’s We Are Who We Are, slays the period jazz and subtle piano, which is in-line with the simmers.
The film begins to lag midway through and its quietness lends itself as a disadvantage. This doesn’t happen for long though, as things get back hot for the third act. The final part really taps into its thriller sensibilities for an ending, which much like the film itself, isn’t interested in giving complete answers, but wants the viewer to apply their own lens. But because of the lagging, the ending may seem a bit rushed and/or unearned.
Some may not be a fan of the film’s lack of a fully-formed narrative and plot and believe it leaves a lot to be desired, which is fair. But otherwise, it is easy to get engrossed in the characters themselves and the game of cat and mouse — again, which one is the cat and which one is the mouse is for you to decide. Hall nails tone and aesthetics but doesn’t quite deliver on the psychological thriller. The element is always there but doesn’t fully surface until that third act. Every moment you think that it could go there, it doesn’t. The film’s exploration of race, gender, sexuality and class will definitely be solid at the very least and great at its best, but may not be as flashy for someone schooled in Larson.
Still, what’s very remarkable is the exploration of the practice of passing, as presented by the film. We may be learning about it here through the lens of colorism via racism, slavery, bigotry and so much more — but it’s more so the idea that we all are have something we want to disclose, and in turn, something we want to showcase to the world. As Irene states, “We’re all passing as something or other, aren’t we?”