Film & Television

‘Passing,’ A Powerful Debut and a Profoundly Beautiful Film

“We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?”

This philosophical observation is made by Irene Redfield, a Black woman at a Negro Welfare League fundraiser in New York in the 1920s. The man she’s speaking to is her friend, Hugh Wentworth, an acclaimed author, who happens to be white. Like many progressive artists of the day, he enjoys going uptown to experience the Harlem Renaissance firsthand. Or is it the sense of the exotic, “even perhaps a bit repugnant,” that he craves? Or is it simply one of many events to which he can bring his wife, Bianca, maintaining the façade that they’re a healthy, normal, heterosexual couple, when — by modern sensibilities at least — he is rather obviously gay? The point is, Hugh is no stranger to passing.

But Passing, the stunning new movie written and directed by Rebecca Hall, is not Hugh’s story. It centers around a more literal definition of “passing,” in this case a fair-skinned Black woman, Clare Bellew, who is living as white. But Irene makes a valid point. Whether you agree with Clare’s decisions or not, it’s difficult to condemn her when everyone, to some extent or another, is projecting who they think they should be as much as who they truly are.

Hall is an accomplished actress, having started her career at the tender age of ten, when her father, renowned English director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company Peter Hall, cast her in the television series The Camomile Lawn. Ten years later, she was featured in his stage production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Her film career has included leading roles in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and Please Give.

However, like many actors, Hall wanted to direct. She specifically wanted to direct her own film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing. And it’s taken her more than ten years to do so.

With Hollywood experiencing a heightened focus on representation right now, a white woman from England may at first seem like an unusual choice for a project so central to the Black American experience. But Hall’s family background has its own secrets. Or, as Irene would say, “Things aren’t always what they seem.” 

Hall’s mother is the opera singer Maria Ewing, who was born in a white suburb of Detroit. Ewing’s father, however, was mixed race, although he chose to “pass” for white. The subject was never discussed when Hall was growing up. As she explained recently to The Guardian, “I think in any family that has a legacy of passing, it’s very tricky, because, sadly, you inherit all of the shame and none of the pride.”

Despite her own family tree, even Hall herself was concerned that she might not be the right person to direct the film. It was also difficult to find funding for it. She recalls sharing it with industry friends and getting the same reaction over and over, “When I first started showing [the screenplay] to people, everyone said, ‘Oh, it’s extraordinary! It’s really wonderful! So, so delicate!’ And then there would be a pause, and then someone would say, ‘I think you’ll have a very hard time getting it made. Maybe come back to this one?’”

Many years later, we are so fortunate that Passing was finally made, and made by Hall. It’s one of the most impressive directorial debuts I’ve ever seen.

Passing stars two luminous actors in the key roles of Irene and Clare: Tessa Thompson (Sylvie’s Love, Avengers: Endgame) and Ruth Negga (Loving, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). They meet at the beginning of the film on a particularly hot day. Having shopped for her son’s birthday, Irene stops to cool off at a fancy, and no doubt for whites-only, hotel. She isn’t challenged; with her hat pulled down nearly covering her eyes, her elegant dress, and parcels, she’s assumed to be white. You could say she is passively passing. In the hotel’s tearoom, she’s approached by Clare, blonde and married to a wealthy white man. After a few minutes, the two go up to Clare’s room, where they order cakes and “tea in champagne flutes.” Irene is surprised to learn that Clare’s own husband doesn’t know she’s Black; thankfully, their daughter was light-skinned. “It’s entirely worth the price,” Clare assures her. “I have everything I ever wanted.”

When her husband, John (a sinister Alexander Skarsgård) returns, Irene understands why Clare can’t reveal her background. He’s abominably racist. In fact, he’s noticed that Clare’s skin seems to be getting darker and calls her “N*g” as a joke. “You can get as dark as you like,” he tells her. “I know you’re not Negro.” Irene, who John assumes is white, asks, “So you dislike Negroes?” “Not at all,” he assures her, “I hate them.”

From this point on, despite Irene’s comfortable home with Brian, her doctor husband (André Holland), and two young boys, despite Clare’s wealth and the flirtatious freedom she feels moving through Irene’s world, the danger of discovery is always present if not at last unavoidable. And the violently racist outside world is harder and harder to ignore. Brian insists on telling the boys about a man who was lynched in Arkansas and urges Irene to consider moving to South America. Meanwhile, Clare insinuates herself more and more into the life Irene has constructed for herself, which includes genteel volunteer work and a darker-skinned maid, Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins), whom Irene rules with an imperious hand. At the risk of relying on an obvious cliché, there’s a lot of gray area.

The film is simply beautiful, shot in black and white, in a 4:3 ratio, effectively transporting us to another time (most movies today are a wider 16:9). There’s a marvelous Jazz Age soundtrack; the costumes and sets are exquisite; and the dialogue is slow-paced, even as the film moves ever closer to a reckoning Clare can’t avoid and seems, at times, to desperately want.

 The chemistry between Thompson and Negga (and, indeed, between the two actors and their director) is powerful and as affirming as it is tragic. Each woman sees in her friend a road not taken, and each wonders if the choices she made were ultimately the right ones. And, after building a life — around a truth, a lie, or some middle ground — it’s terribly hard to start over.

Hall has achieved something remarkable with Passing. Every note of every scene is pitch-perfect. But the film transcends its own material. Although it’s about very specific people in a particular place and time, the questions it raises and the experiences it dramatizes are broader, more universal.

“We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?”

Passing is in select theaters now. It will be available to stream on Netflix mid-November.

 

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