In theaters now ahead of its Netflix debut on Nov. 10, “Passing” is not to be missed. You won’t ever forget the award-worthy performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as two Black women—one of whom is passing for white—as they walk the minefield of racial, class and gender identity.
Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, “Passing” is rich in period detail about Jazz Age New York, even as its themes of colorism resonate for right now. Shot in black-and-white, the film represents a sensational directing and screenwriting debut for British actress Rebecca Hall ( “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “The Town”).
The power of “Passing” comes from its delicate balance of ferocity and feeling. Hall sets the scene as Irene (Thompson), a doctor’s wife from Harlem, uses her light skin to escape a sweltering summer day and relax with a cool drink at an all-white Manhattan hotel. Irene feels awkward and guilty at her ruse.
Not so Clare (Negga), a childhood friend Irene hasn’t seen for years, who sweeps into the hotel with her wealthy white husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), an avowed racist. Clare, a bleached-blond bombshell, is clearly practiced at passing.
Later, in Clare’s hotel suite, the two women catch up. Irene, who Clare calls “Reenie,” lives comfortably in Harlem with her Black husband, Brian (André Holland), and their two, dark-skinned sons and darker housekeeper, Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins), with whom Irene maintains a condescending distance.
Clare is living a lie. Though she and John have a light-skinned daughter, she fears trying again for a son, just in case he “comes out dark” and her cover is blown. Irene senses danger in the imitation of life that Clare is living. And she’s right.
Hall builds tension as the two women compare their differences. Clare envies Irene’s centered life as a Black woman in a Black community and tries to co-opt it, while Irene longs for Clare’s captivating sexuality and perceived freedom.
Then there’s their own thinly-veiled attraction to each other. Jealousy intervenes as Clare flirts openly with Irene’s husband, who resents his wife’s refusal to deal with America’s racial bonfires, such as a lynching in Arkansas.
What attracted Hall, the daughter of the late British theater director Sir Peter Hall, to “Passing”? The answer is deeply personal. Having learned that her maternal grandfather passed as white—a fact about which her mother, opera singer Maria Ewing, had long been evasive—Hall plunged in.
"I started to think about how I present as this white-passing person, who has all of the privileges and am afforded that because of how I look," said Hall, who poured all these conflicting emotions into her film.
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The result is a mesmerizing movie that marks a stunning debut for Hall, whose work behind the camera is a wonder to behold. And she couldn’t have found two acting interpreters more capable of bringing her humanist vision to life on screen.
Negga, an Oscar nominee for “Loving,” finds the tragic roots behind Clare’s surface dazzle. And Thompson—Valkryie in Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame and two Thor films—expertly uncovers the beating heart in the emotionally imprisoned Irene. Their artistry is staggering. Just sit back and behold.