Actress Rebecca Hall makes a thought-provoking directorial debut in Netflix's Passing. The film is an adaptation of the 1929 novel of the same name by author Nella Larsen. The title refers to African Americans who had skin color that was light enough to be perceived as white. The practice of which is commonly referred to as passing.
In 1920s New York City, Irene (Tessa Thompson), a Black woman, finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with Clare (Ruth Negga), a former childhood friend passing as white. Irene is married to Brian (Andre Holland), a black Doctor, while Clare is married to a white businessman named John (Alexander Skarsgård), who has no idea about his wife's true heritage.
The first time I can recall hearing the term “passing” was in the films Pinky and Imitation of Life. Other films such as The Human Stain, Illusions, and the still conversational 1986 comedy Soul Man have also explored the topic. So how does Hall's take on the subject measure up? It’s organic and even a bit surprising, in my opinion.
Hall introduces us to Irene in the midst of shopping for a birthday gift. Inside the store, there are two white women using racial slurs, thinking no one is around, and Irene has to hold her tongue. Hall makes the wise decision to do a close-up of Irene's eyes so we can tap into her emotion of frustration. Within the next few scenes, the childhood friends reunite, and the genesis of the film's narrative begins.
In the role of Clare, Ruth Negga fully taps into a character that I am sure some audiences may detest. While Irene questions her motives, Clare is somewhat caviler to her behavior. One of the film's most cringe-worthy moments involves a monologue by John and his dislike for people of color. During the monologue, I cannot even recall Skarsgård blinking as he causally describes his nickname for his wife, which I will not reveal here. It is a challenging moment to stomach, and I thoroughly commend both Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson for their facial expressions during the scene.
Honestly, my initial expectation was that Hall would take the film in a direction about the evils of racism. Instead, throughout a slow-moving ninety-nine-minute run time, Hall chooses to focus on identity issues and how they look from the outside looking in. Clare is always the center of attention, while Irene is generally ignored. Both women deliver outstanding performances in this acting showcase. The supporting cast does what they can, as Alexander Skarsgård is good as always, while Andre Holland can make reading a phone book interesting.
Kudos to Rebecca Hall for providing lush dialogue that compliments the film's black & white aesthetics. Edu Grau's cinematography in standard 4:3 aspect ratio was also glorious to view. I also enjoyed the score by Devonté Hynes. Director Rebecca Hall's mother is an African American opera singer Maria Ewing, and her father is the late Englishmen Peter Hall. Therefore, I am sure the project is a bit of a passion project for Hall.
Hall's directorial debut is a strong one, thanks to the strength of our two leads, though I am sure the film will draw its share of think pieces and criticism. However, I do recommend the movie, and when the credits rolled, a quote by the legendary Toni Morrison crossed my mind.
"For me the history of the place of Black people in this country is so varied, complex and beautiful. And impactful."
Final Grade: B+
Passing is in limited theaters now and is available to stream on Netflix beginning November 10th