Passing is a film that appears to have slipped under many filmgoers’ radars but one that should definitely be watched. This Netflix film sees phenomenal actress Rebecca Hall in her directorial debut and follows Reenie (Tessa Thompson), a woman who encounters a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who explains to Reenie how she has been able to “pass” as a white woman to make her life easier in a racist society. Clare has been so successful in her bid to pass as white that her husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), has no idea that she is black. Reenie begins to see the allure of passing as white in a society that is still inherently racist but in doing so, she begins to experience a loss of self in her identity while Clare is struggling with the loss that has already happened and wants to reconnect with her heritage and the life that she previously knew.
The film marks actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut and she also provides the screenplay which has been adapted from the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. What is visually striking about Hall’s direction is how timeless it feels despite being a period piece that is grounded in its 1920s New York environment. The first thing to note about the film is the decision to film it in black and white which not only highlights the racial issues discussed in the films, but it also provides that timelessness and allows the film to focus on the details of the writing rather than the colours. Hall’s script is beautifully written as she allows the story to naturally develop without feeling rushed so we become accustomed to both women’s nuances and mannerisms.
Leading the film is Tessa Thompson who plays Irene, or Reenie as she is known to her friends. Reenie learns how to pass as white from childhood friend Clare and while this idea may have seemed beneficial and advantageous initially, Reenie begins to experience a conflict with herself and the life she has established. Married to successful doctor Brian (André Holland), Reenie is keen on fighting for racial equality but her fascination and admiration for Clare and the idea of passing as white naturally conflicts this due to Clare’s life decisions and her detachment from her heritage. Thompson shines in this leading role and shows her dramatic range while also bringing depth and authenticity to Reenie and the struggles she is faced with as Clare’s ideology and the society that encourages such ideologies threaten to undo all the work she is has done in her life and the life that she has worked hard to achieve.
Ruth Negga has received acclaim and attention from various awards bodies including a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting turn as Clare. Contrasting to Reenie, Clare lives her life as a white woman and is married to the affluent John Bellew who is openly racist and comments on his wife’s complexion. What is brilliant about Negga’s performance is how magnetic Clare’s character is. As soon as she is introduced onscreen and observes Reenie from a distance, there is so much to gain from her mannerisms and fearless nature. In any other film, a character like Clare would be viewed as a person who is simply meddling in Reenie’s life but Negga works well to show Clare’s own struggles and her desires to break free from the trap that she has put herself in.
Alexander Skarsgård provides a brilliant turn as Clare’s racist husband, John Bellew. Skarsgård isn’t in the film a lot but in the few scenes that he is, his presence immediately shifts the tone of the film into horror or thriller territory as his racist rhetoric is threatening and aggressive immediately, especially in his first scene in which John constantly digs at Clare for her complexion which has been appearing “darker” than usual. John’s character is representative of the hatefulness in a racist society due to the openness in his comments and intimidating nuances that are extremely discomforting, especially towards Reenie when she first meets him.
One of the highlights of the film is the music which is composed by Devonte Hynes. Reflecting on the period of the film, the music incorporates elements of jazz while the score itself shifts and changes along with the tone of the film. Just as jazz itself is known for its unpredictable nature, the score channels Reenie and Clare’s inner conflicts as they try to figure out their sense of identity and self in a society that disregards people of colour and women of colour in particular.
Passing is one of those films that doesn’t need bells and whistles to show off the craftsmanship and nuances within. It’s a shame that it hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves because there are a lot of stand out performances, especially from Ruth Negga as well as Rebecca Hall’s impeccable script and direction which elevates the film beyond its time into a story that feels just as relevant today as it was when the book was first published. It’s this timelessness that makes a film like Passing incredibly important and necessary to discussions on race. If this is what Hall can deliver in her directorial debut then it foreshadows a lot of promise for her future directorial endeavors.
What did you think of Passing? Let me know in the comments below!
Passing is available to watch on Netflix now!