Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, Passing is an auspicious directorial debut for actress Rebecca Hall that follows a pair of mixed-race Black women whose light skin allows them to pass for white. Once high school pals, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) reunite as adults while both passing as white; Irene, married to a darker-skinned Black man (André Holland), uses her ability to pass selectively, usually to gain access to whites-only spaces in 1920s New York, while Clare lives full-time as a white woman, married to a virulently racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no knowledge of her black ancestry.
Passing as white has historically been used as a survival tool for light-skinned Black people, and Larsen’s novel tackled it head-on at a time when such things were rarely acknowledged. While the idea of the “tragic mulatto” was already something of a racial stereotype at the time, Larsen’s perspective as a woman of mixed race leant a certain verisimilitude to its characters’ plights and turned the stereotype into a kind of cudgel against the assimilative expectations of American society. Hall likewise has unique insight into the material, as she too is of mixed race (her mother has African American heritage), and the film she crafts is a dreamlike examination of race, colorism, and queer desire in America that is occasionally uneven but altogether impossible to ignore. Hall seems to have been birthed as a filmmaker completely in command of her craft — the black and white cinematography and exquisite framing give the film an almost otherworldly, removed quality, as if existing squarely within its characters’ own conflicted psyches. It’s like Irene and Clare are somehow able to escape into an idyllic fantasy world of their own making, upon which the real world, and the ugly realities of racism and America, come crashing.
Passing deftly navigates some tricky waters, tackling a deeply sensitive topic with tremendous grace. And it does so by focusing on the toll of passing on both those who attempt it and on those who cannot; how black identity isn’t something that can be either donned or discarded on a whim, like a costume. Yet it also refuses to judge its characters for their choices — they’re surviving in a very white world, and with passing comes the benefit of white privilege, and the spiritual toll of denying one’s true self. As a white male viewer, it’s difficult to fully understand and appreciate the complexities of the ideas being grappled with here, but it’s easy to note that Hall’s craft is undeniable. The film has a very particular, almost staccato rhythm that feels strangely affected at times, but it’s that very sense of wooziness that makes Passing such a unique achievement. If it occasionally feels unsure of it itself, it’s often because its characters are so unsure of themselves, and Hall dwells in that uncertainty. Thompson’s performance can come across as stiff, until we remember that the character is herself playing a role, meaning that the film is often operating on multiple planes at once. No easy feat, that, especially in one’s debut film, but Hall’s assuredness behind the camera delivers one of the more indelible directorial debuts by an actor in recent memory. Hall has channeled her own experiences (in fact, this film will probably be the first time many people will learn of her Black heritage) into a thorny, lyrical examination of race in America and how internalized racism so powerfully informs self-perception and self-worth. The film’s insularity is both a blessing and a curse, but those internalized emotions just simmering beneath the surface, ultimately, manage to speak volumes. Passing is a cry of anguish, one fully aware that its greatest tragedy is that it cannot sound above a whisper.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.