Passing movie review: A subtle, complex drama about race and identity

Actor Rebecca Hall, best known for The Prestige and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, makes a remarkable debut as a director with this complex period drama
A still from the Netflix movie Passing
A still from the Netflix movie Passing

When we first see Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), we really don’t get to see her. She hides behind a lowered hat and looks anxious and nervous, a state we find her in most parts of the film. Irene is out shopping in New York and her anxiety is because she is passing—a term used to describe an act of a person projecting oneself as belonging to another race. In Irene’s case, she is passing as white. Apart from the fear of being found, Irene is also tortured by the heat. To take cover, she ends up in a luxurious hotel of all places, which is predominantly white. There she runs into an old-time friend Clare Bellow (Ruth Negga), who is also passing. Unlike Irene, who seems to be doing it out of curiosity, Clare has transformed herself into this white woman married to a racist white man unaware of his wife’s secret. What ensues is a brilliant and leisurely-paced drama that tells a layered story and leaves you with a lot to ponder about on the concept of identity.

Director: Rebecca Hall

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, Hugh Wentworth, Alexander Skarsgård

Streaming on: Netflix

Rating: Four out of five

Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, Passing, the directorial debut of actor Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), is in the 4:3 aspect ratio which aids the fabulous performances of the two lead actors, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. The film is also understandably shot in black and white, which establishes the lighter skin of the African-American lead characters that distinguish them from their brethren. However, it brings out an irony that despite everything on the screen being black and white, the characters and the ideas are anything but. Take the case of Clare, for example. Though her act of passing is initially frowned upon and even censured by Reenie and Brian, they eventually warm up to her, as do we.

On the other hand, the same could be said of Irene’s predicament. On the surface, she is a brave black woman unfailing in her duties as a mom, and her welfare work for the community, including organising the Welfare League Dance. All this, despite having it in her skin to ‘pass’. When the two first meet in the film, Clare asks the same to Rene, who is taken aback by the idea of it. Irene does come across as this modern woman any black girl would aspire to be in those times, and yet, we see that she is vulnerable, envious, and dicey. These stark ideas are handled with subtlety.

The whole film is so nuanced that perfunctory viewings will do no justice. Take how Rebecca Hall establishes (a strong word for the film’s subtlety) the building jealousy in Irene for Clare. In one scene, Irene walks into her house carrying groceries and finds her housekeeper Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins) and Clare lazing in the backyard under the sun. The camaraderie is evident. Irene asks Zu to get to work. When there is no response from Zu, she commands with authority. Yet, the focus is never on the jealousy Irene seems to be reeling from. You see this subtlety even when the film captures the sexual tension between Clare and Irene.

The whole Welfare League Dance sequence is at the heart of Passing. Irene’s conversation with the event’s special guest, white writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), gives a peek into her persona. Somewhere in that brilliant exchange, Hugh asks Irene why she wouldn’t ‘pass’ when she could. Irene retorts, “Who’s to say I am not?” And then adds, “We all of us (are) passing for something or the other.” When the film ended, I wondered what I was passing as. If you watched this film, you would too.

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