Reel Reviews | Passing (Sundance ’21)

Tessa Thompson And Ruth Negga Straddle The Color Line In Rebecca Hall’s Elegantly-Told Directorial Debut

by Travis Hopson | Punch Drunk Critics

Having starred in her share of Sundance films already, Rebecca Hall returns to Park City with Passing, a delicately-told, passionate, and complex drama about mixed-race women in 1920s Harlem. An adaptation of the book by Nella Larsen, herself a woman of color who based some of the details on her own experiences, the film stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in what is a true actor’s showcase.

Unsurprising that Hall, a refined dramatic actress with her own mixed-heritage background, would be attracted to this material. The story, boiled down from Larsen’s intertwining narrative, centers on Irene “Rene” Redfield (Thompson) and Clare Kendry Bellew (Negga). The film begins with two well-to-do white women talking amongst themselves. The first word that emerges clearly is a slur, “pickaninny”, and one drops such a doll on the ground. It’s Rene who picks it up to be helpful. The women don’t seem to recognize that she is a Black woman. Rene is dressed much like them, surely she must be white. Later, having lunch at a luxury hotel, Rene becomes uncomfortable at the white people around her. Are they looking at her? Do they suspect? Why is this one woman staring at her so intently?

The other woman, a striking beauty, is Clare, someone she has not seen in nearly a decade. Rene is careful not to confirm anything at first, but Clare is the opposite. She’s outspoken, drawing attention to herself, to them. We soon learn she’s done something quite incredible. Clare has passed herself as white so perfectly as to attract her wealthy white husband, John Bellow (Alexander Skarsgard), and had a child with him. The poor Harlem neighborhood, and the people in it, are a thing of the past for Clare.

And yet, this fabrication that is Clare’s “pale life” seems to have lost its luster. Passing explores two Black women on opposite ends of the color line, but it’s more complicated than that. Rene, no slouch at passing as white herself, has a happy home with her doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two sons. They struggle, however, and race plays no small part. We’re often left to wonder if Rene holds any jealousy towards her friend, and if so, is it for her beauty and room-filling personality? Or because of the burden of race that she’s freed herself from?

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