Reviewed by Rosalind S. Murphy, Murphy Media 360
‘Passing’ is the captivating feature-length directorial debut from writer/director Rebecca Hall about the struggles of identity and aspiration. Produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker, Margot Hand and Hall, the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021.
Hall’s film is adapted from Nella Larsen’s acclaimed novel Passing, about two mixed-race women during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Like the novel, the movie explores race, class, and love from a myriad of perspectives, though grounded in the lives of Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined upper class biracial Black woman who is married to Brian (Andre Holland), a well-respected Black doctor, and Irene’s former schoolmate, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga).
Hall’s connection to the film’s theme of biracial identity is personal, after discovering her own mixed ancestry in her mid-20s.
In this cinematic tale, both women are “passing” for white: Irene while traversing outside of her Harlem, New York City home base, where she lives a cultured and content life with her husband and two boys; Clare, in Europe with her bigoted white husband John (Alexander Skarsgard), who is unaware of her Black roots, and their daughter.
While shopping for a birthday gift on New York City’s posh Upper West Side, Irene slips away to a swank hotel for an afternoon tea. There, she is reunited with the fun-loving and extravagant Clare, via a chance encounter.
Overcome with excitement, Clare invites Irene to her room for a more private catch-up session, but their school-girl reunion is cut short when John arrives unexpectedly early, and Irene quickly discovers that he is the consummate racist, spewing foul jokes with great ease and joy, a joy his half-Black wife pretends to share in.
Although both women can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Clare’s ability to pass fosters a proud, uninhibited life, but for Irene, life is tentative and distressed.
Subsequently, their encounter ignites a desire in Clare for reconnection with her friend and the Black community. She is enamored with Harlem, the people, the music, the art, and Irene. For Irene the renewed friendship stokes her already palpable paranoia and leads to conflict that dangerously threatens their chosen life-paths.
The story’s complexity lies in its focus on Irene’s feelings and her struggle to identify and navigate them, and the need to belong, to be embraced, to be loved.
I remember watching ‘Imitation of Life’ as a child, my mother’s favorite movie, and the confusion and sadness I felt watching the passing daughter’s rejection of her Black mother. Viewing the aforementioned film as an adult, I also see a daughter caught between two worlds, and her vehement rejection of the limitations the world placed on her as a Black woman. She seized opportunities for success that Black people could not, did not dare to imagine. “Passing’ successfully explores those complexities of colorism from both sides, Black and white.
Hall delivers a stunning black and white film with beautiful set production, elegant fashion, and mesmerizing music. The adaptation of Larsen’s novel captured magnificent, nuanced, complementary performances by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. Thompson’s raw emotion and pensive nature deliver the perfect juxtaposition to Negga’s whimsical, playful energy. Thompson and Holland’s even-toned chemistry wonderfully captures the often surreal nature of married life.
The latter part of the film addressed so many issues and topics that it seemed to jump around, instead of taking a deeper dive into the relationships, particularly that of Irene and Clare’s rekindled friendship. Intimations abounded but were never confirmed, leaving me a bit confused and frustrated.
Compelling and thought-provoking, ‘Passing’ ultimately casts a powerful gaze on colorism, classism, family, marriage, and love.
Netflix has acquired worldwide rights to ‘Passing’ for a deal close to $16 million.