Over the last four years, it’s become obvious to just about everyone how pervasive and prevalent the problem of racism is today, as well as how bad it has been for so long, especially in America. What might not be as well known is how absurdist some past solutions — or pseudo-solutions — became. How else to explain the phenomenon of “racial passing,” where Black folks of mixed-race — particularly women — were able to pass into and through white communities. This was partially done through things like makeup and clothing but also through a change of attitude, demeanor and language — in other words, a change of personality. Such a change could easily lead to an enigmatic identity and sense of self (if it didn’t become completely lost), resulting in an ambiguous existence.
Writer-director Rebecca Hall’s film Passing deals with these ambiguities in a suitably mysterious and haunting manner. Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, the film follows Irene (Tessa Thompson), a mixed-race woman living in Harlem in the late 20s with her two young boys and affluent doctor husband, Brian (André Holland). During one day of shopping by herself while passing for a white woman, Irene runs into an old friend, Claire (Ruth Negga), who has made racial passing her entire life, being married to a wealthy white finance man (Alexander Skarsgård) who apparently has no idea of his wife’s mixed-race heritage. Despite Irene’s fear of Claire’s presence — whether for her own sake or for her friend’s — Claire insinuates herself into Irene’s life, becoming a part of the household in ways that aren’t always welcome.
Passing is an impressive debut for Hall as a director, her background as an actor allowing her to guide her cast to uniformly fantastic performances. Thompson and Negga in particular have a fantastic chemistry as their characters seem to dance around each other, neither quite saying what’s exactly on their minds. Holland is the movie’s rock, bringing his introspective intensity to a man whose opinions on activism and social change are progressive but whose personal expectations (particularly of his wife) are very of the period. Yet Passing isn’t merely an acting showcase, as Hall, in conjunction with cinematographer Edu Grau, creates some beautiful compositions that bring out the emotions of the scene while never being too obtrusive.
Where Passing falters is on the surface level of its narrative, as it appears to tell a story about race and class that is a little on the nose. The choice to shoot the movie in black and white is obvious not just from a period perspective but a metaphorical one, suggesting that matters of identity are far from, well, black and white. Passing’s usage of period language, especially when it comes to terminology and slang, can be rather distancing, making scenes difficult to get a handle on as one crashes into another. Hall also deliberately blurs the timeline of the story — it’s told linearly, yet it’s not made clear how much time has passed between the film’s beginning and ending.
If one can get past those obstructions, however, the game Hall is playing (which is a faithful adaptation of the tone of Larsen’s novel) becomes evident and pays off in thoughtful, speculative dividends. Passing is a film that is told from the perspective of its titular theme, one where facts and identities are uncertain. Thompson, Negga and Holland play their roles close to the vest, allowing numerous interpretations to be read into their silent reactions and odd choice of words. The movie is filled with ambiguous mysteries about these people’s inner lives: Irene and Claire may or may not have been lovers in the past, just as one or both of them may still have a queer identity in the present. Claire and Brian may or may not be having an affair, and Irene may or may not be jealously resentful of such a connection, to the point of perhaps wishing Claire harm.
In this way, Hall has made a movie that explores history through an experiential lens, presenting how such a bizarre existence must’ve felt, hiding in plain sight. It’s an experience that so many people have to this day for various reasons, ranging from fear of prejudice and oppression (racially, sexually and otherwise) to merely being shy and insecure. Hall makes sure that the audience never truly knows Irene, Claire and Brian, keeping them at arm’s length even as their actors seem to hint at deeper truths. Passing, like its source novel, makes the narrative just as unknowable as its characters by the end — like racism, the wealth gap and other societal factors that created these problems, there are no easy answers. Passing may be too ambiguous an experience for some, yet the way it reveals and conceals at the same time feels not just like a perfect encapsulation of its subject, but also underlines Hall’s emergence as a filmmaker to watch.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.