Reel Reviews | Passing

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Two women, old friends from school reunite and discover that one is hiding an incredible secret in, Passing.

One day during lunch, Clare (Ruth Negga) spies her old high school friend Irene (Tessa Thompson). During their lunch reunion, “Rennie” discovers her friend has been “passing” as white. She is even married to a white man who has no idea that she is truly black. After their lunch, Clare reconnects with Rennie and is slowly drawn back into the culture which she has abandoned. It is a tenuous time of joy for Clare who realizes that she has been living a lie and is unsure how to fix the mess she has created.

Written and directed by Rebecca Hall based upon the novel by Nella Larsen, Passing is the directorial debut for Hall and stars Thompson and Negga along with Andre Holland, Bill Camp, and Alexander Skarsgard.

Passing is a slang term for the act of a person assuming the identity of white. The term was coined during the antebellum period of US History as many slaves used their light skin color to escape slavery. Where in the past, the ability was considered an asset, today the term still has relevance because the action still occurs yet in most circles, the term has been used in a derogatory form casting a negative aspersion upon the ability. In this film, Hall attempts to cast a light upon both the relatively few positive and a great many negative aspects of passing.

Hall films Passing in black and white, which allows the viewers to lock their attention upon the actors in the film. The technique also serves as a visual commentary upon the idea that the nature of the problem she is addressing. As a first-time director, Hall seems to have an innate grasp upon the skill in giving room for the actors to emote and articulate their truths.

Thompson and Negga are captivating as they themselves transport viewers into the mindset of those living in the twenties in the United States. While slavery was abolished, segregation was the rule of the day and even the “liberal” areas of the New York City metropolis where these women lived were not immune to the deep racial tensions that existed at the time. The major themes of the film are identity and truth yet the peril that is faced by Clare and Irene seems to allude to but never realized until its fateful end.

The overlooked trick of the movie is how well it “passes” for a twenties-era movie of the more Caucasian tradition. The movie is dialogue-heavy and intelligent. It does not use slang or portray any African Americans of lower than the middle class. (All characteristics that black people nowadays would contribute to “acting white.”) Ironically, it is very reflective of the language used by people at that time.

PASSING – (L to R) TESSA THOMPSON as IRENE and RUTH NEGGA as CLARE. Netflix © 2021

The unusual problem with this movie is that it seems unnecessarily long in spite of the fact that it is actually short. The movie somehow tends to drag in its content and plays off as too fancy. Hall never really allows an emotional connection to any of the characters so when the movie gets to its conclusion it elicits no appropriate emotional response. Instead of a cautionary tale, it is more of a documentary re-creation of a story.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some racial slurs, and smoking, Passing is an interesting film that attempts to capture the nature of the racial atmosphere of the era and then shines a light upon the emotional and intellectual crimes that can occur when a person attempts to deny who they are and deceive those around them. It is only passably successful.

Passing is in on Netflix and in theaters.

Grade: B

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