Like its ostensible subject, a woman of color “passing” for white, “Passing” is not the film one might think it would be. The risks for Clare, the now blonde wife of a Negro-hating white man, occupy little emotional or physical space in English actress Rebecca Hall’s (who herself could pass) directorial debut. The core of the film is the response to Clare by Irene, her school friend of 20 years ago, a doctor’s wife and a fixture of 1920s Harlem society.
Tessa Thompson is captivating as Irene, revealing most of her torment physically rather than verbally. She’s as quiet, contained, and emotionally wrought in private (though self-assured when out in her Harlem world) as Clare (Ruth Negga, nominated for an Oscar Best Actress for “Loving,” 2016) is cocky, brassy, and an acknowledged risk-taker. Clare’s passing is deeply troubling for Irene, though Irene shows no interest in being Clare—that is, in adopting Clare’s solution to what’s referred to here as the “race problem.” And, even though she has passed once (with great trepidation), Irene seems to have no interest in abandoning her Harlem life with her husband and two sons who, she states plainly to Clare, are too black to pass.
Irene twice tries to end her relationship with Clare, apparently not wanting the idea of passing, or another type of racial accommodation, to be in her head.
Irene twice tries to end her relationship with Clare, apparently not wanting the idea of passing, or another type of racial accommodation, to be in her head. “We’re all of us passing for something or other,” she tells a white author friend (Bill Camp) who comes up to Harlem to get a touch of the Negro exotic. It may be the film’s most poignant line, suggesting that Irene’s comfortable Harlem situation may involve more than a little pretense.
Irene and her husband, Brian (André Holland), have different views of their upper-class life. Irritated by Harlem’s dirt and crime, he wants to leave the country. She seems to enjoy her cocoon. He wants to inform their sons about lynching; she wants to preserve their childhood innocence (and perhaps her own). Along with her discussion with the white author, Irene’s few disagreements with Brian are as close to an overt political discussion as “Passing” gets. The unsaid, rather than the said, the refusal to dwell in stereotypes, are strengths of the film.
Clare is distraught by her white existence—though, with the exception of one early scene, her experience is largely unseen.
Clare is distraught by her white existence—though, with the exception of one early scene, her experience is largely unseen. She longs to be back in Harlem and, in a way, longs to have Irene’s life, complete with husband, sons, acquaintances, Southern cooking, and parties. Passing for white, married to a white banker (Alexander Skarsgård), Clare has money and one “light” child (not daring to have another, she tells Irene), but not happiness.
Based on a 1929 book by New York City novelist Nella Larsen (reissued in 2001 when Larsen was rediscovered), “Passing” is a quiet, dark, interior work, shot by Eduard Grau (“A Single Man” 2009) in chiaroscuro black and white, with even the frequent fades—and a final scene in the snow—going not to black but to white.
“Passing” does not rise to the level of an Oscar Best Picture nomination, for which it’s been mentioned by some critics. It should be valued for what it is: a small, contained, slow-paced, well-acted film that manages to tell its story without resorting to melodrama. A compelling portrait of two black women reconsidering their lives.
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Rebecca Hall
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Alexander Skarsgård
Runtime: 98 minutes
Country: United States, United Kingdom, Canada
Other Awards: 18 wins and 87 nominations to date, including Ruth Negga for Best Supporting Actress by the Greater Western New York Film Critics Association.
Availability: Currently only streaming on Netflix; for future availability, see JustWatch here.
Lead image: Ruth Negga, left, as Clare and Tessa Thompson, right, as Irene, both strong performances.