Delicately crafted and dynamically performed, Rebecca Hall’s Passing portrays a complex story of friendship and identity without the racial cliches that generally go along with this type of story.
Tessa Thompson stars as Irene “Reenie” Redfield, a middle-class black woman living in the early 20th century in New York City. By chance, she encounters her childhood friend Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga). Despite Clare also being black, she “passes” as white and is married to a prejudiced, wealthy white man named John (Alexander Skarsgård). Reenie lives in Harlem with her doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland).
Reenie attempts to push away from Clare, but they eventually become close friends again. While Reenie attempts to maintain her idyllic life, Clare’s interactions start to interfere with Reenie’s personal life. Clare attempts to maintain her identity while dipping her toe back into her Harlem upbringing. Reenie can’t come to grips with either side of the spectrum and struggles to comprehend. Meanwhile, Clare and Brian become closer, which causes more anxiety for Reenie.
While many other films with a racial element are viewed with either a white lens or a white person’s narrative, this film is told entirely through Reenie’s point of view. That perspective lends itself not only to the struggles with Clare’s situation but with Reenie’s own relationship with her husband, children, Clare, and her place in society. Reenie chairs the Negro Welfare League and maintains a level of routine and security with her life and situation. Clare’s interloping into her life throws Reenie out of balance and causes her to question whether or not she is doing what she is supposed to.
Thompson dominates the screen and wears every bit of insecurity on her sleeve to the audience while shielding it from those around her. While her increasing worry seems perfectly reasonable, it is also complemented by the possibility of her imagining the worst. Thompson wields this like a weapon and creates a wholly realistic portrayal of a woman who thought she had it all figured out. Negga is equally impressive, excluding arrogance and incredulity in public, but confessing to her own sets of insecurities in private. Clare is a character who could have turned very wrong in less talented hands, and Negga delivers at every turn.
Hall’s script and direction certainly have a plan, though the narrative can feel a bit clunky at times. The story does not sit around and wait for things to develop, rather scenes jump timelines without exposition and what has occurred in the meantime has to be filled in by the viewer. Regardless, the expected cliches of racial awkwardness and prejudicial hatred never come. Instead, situations are handled by humans and not caricatures. This is best represented in the performance of Skarsgård, who exudes charm and never devolves into the evil villain we all expect him to turn into.
Visually, Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau deliver stunning shots with the black-and-white pulling off more than an old-timey feel. The lack of color is itself part of the narrative and adds to the realism. The jazzy music from Devonte Hynes added an additional layer of period appropriateness to the proceedings as well.
Passing is a wonderful directorial debut from Rebecca Hall and the two main performances carry this film to a level the film aspires to be, but never actually reaches.