Impeccably directed and sublimely acted, Passing is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2021. The film marks actor Rebecca Hall’s debut as a director, and it’s a remarkable achievement. In scene after scene, Hall’s eye for composition left me so thoroughly impressed, I kept thinking, how could this be her first time directing? The confidence and skill on display is what I would expect from a director with far more experience. That Hall makes it look easy is the first surprise among many the movie has in store.
Passing is a character study at heart. Set in 1920s New York it focuses on two African American women who grew up as children but went on to lead very different lives. The screenplay, also written by Hall, operates on multiple levels, deftly threading in discussions on race and racism, satisfaction and desire, and honesty and deceit. If I’m making the movie sound like a serious, ponderous experience, rest assured it’s not. Everything is presented in the form of informal, private conversations between adults of mutual respect, talking openly about their beliefs and feelings. The dialog is intelligent and revealing and fully respects the intelligence of the audience.
Having only seen her previously in sci-fi and comic book fare, Tessa Thompson delivers a complex performance that thoroughly surprised me. Thompson fully inhibits the role of Irene, a conservative woman who has everything she’s ever wanted who lives in constant fear of losing it. Academy Award Nominee Ruth Negga shines in a supporting role as Claire, an incredibly beautiful and charming woman who passes as white to get what she wants.
Filmed in gorgeous black and white, Passing captures your eye while its story and characters engage your mind. Highly recommended.
Set in the 1920s, Passing concerns Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Claire (Ruth Negga), two African American women with a light complexion that allows them to pass for white. They once were childhood friends who grew up in Harlem, but have grown up to lead much different lives. Irene stayed in Harlem, married a doctor, started a family and lives a comfortable middle-class life. She passes out of convenience, but is uncomfortable doing so. Claire, whose skin is almost alabaster, left Harlem and married a white man. A chance meeting in New York reunites them, with both revealing their feelings about passing and whether it is worth the price. When Claire’s husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) returns and reveals himself to be incredibly racist (his pet name for Clair is “Nig”), Irene abruptly leaves.
After spending years living among only white people and then unexpectedly meeting Irene, Claire realized how much she missed her former life in Harlem. Seeing Irene as her way reenter the Black community she once knew, she reaches out to Irene for a visit. When Irene ignores her request, Claire stops by unannounced and demands to know why. Irene angrily admits to not wanting to see Claire again after what happened in the city, her blunt honesty causing Claire to break down and cry. Irene immediately regrets hurting Claire’s feelings and decides to let Claire into her life. When Claire insists on attending the Negro Welfare League dance, Irene knows it will bring trouble but is unable to dissuade her from going.
Irene is also concerned about her husband, Brian (André Holland). His career leaves him exhausted and irritable, and he hates the casual racism that he and his sons have to endure on a regular basis. Unable to alleviate Brian’s discontent, Irene sees Claire’s incredible beauty and irresistible charm as a way to distract him from his unhappiness. Claire’s appearance at the dance causes no problems, and Irene insists that Brian dance with her, which succeeds in bringing him out of his funk. Unfortunately, as Irene predicted, Claire’s regular visits to Harlem arouse John’s suspicions, leading to a fateful confrontation that is by turns shocking and abrupt.
The acting in Passing is exceptional throughout. Tessa Thompson’s performance was a revelation, for me at least. I’d only seen her in science fiction (HBO’s Westworld) and superhero roles (Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame) previously, and none of them gave me any indication she could bring such a complex dramatic role to life. Thompson fully inhabits Irene, a character whose conservative nature is fueled by anxiety over the threat of losing her husband and family, and in turn her comfortable life. Thompson convincingly portrays a smart and capable person who, when unable to handle a perceived threat to her stable existence, unfortunately makes a decision that only succeeds in making her situation less stable than before.
Ruth Negga is radiant as Claire, a force of nature for whom there are no immovable objects. In stark contrast to the cautious and fretful Irene, Claire is confident and vivacious. She behaves like a woman who just wants to have fun, but her playful laugh belies her insatiable desire. While Irene wants to hold onto what she has, Claire always wants more. She wants everything from life and then some. Negga portrays Claire as a golden-haired predator who first captivates her prey with her beauty and flirtatious nature, then seduces them with her vulnerability, eventually bending them to her will. She only realizes the consequences of her actions far too late. In Negga’s hands, Claire is not only an immoral and narcissistic character, but she’s also sympathetic and likeable. She’s a bad person you’d love to have over for tea, a villain you find yourself rooting for. It’s an unquestionably incredible performance.
In a career filled with excellent supporting performances (News of the World, The Outsider, The Night Of), Bill Camp delivers another gem as local novelist and Negro League supporter Hugh Wentworth. Camp portrays Hugh as a man who genuinely wants to understand the Black community better, and believes that understanding leads to acceptance. He’s also sensitive to the fact that members of that community may regard his overtures with suspicion, and is extremely sensitive in his interactions with Irene. She tells Claire he’s “looking for material”, which is probably true but doesn’t offend her. His conversations with Irene are a treat, showing how two people from very different worlds can connect when it’s predicated on mutual respect.
Last but not least is André Holland Brian. He manages a delicate balance of showing a man who is successful and fortunate and still not be satisfied with life. Unlike Irene, he feels his stable, comfortable life is not worth dealing with the racism it entails. When he speaks of moving his family to another country, Irene can’t tell whether he is just venting, or if that is what he plans to do. He’s a glass half empty person to Irene’s glass half full. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pick up on his wife’s signals, leading to the tragic events that bring the story to a close.
Hall’s approach to the material is respectful and patient. A veteran actor in over twenty-five films, she provides her actors an environment where they are able to step into their characters and portray them naturally, allowing space to breathe and exist as regular, everyday people. The actors, tasked with creating complex, layered characters who reveal their feelings primarily through a series of intimate conversations, make things look easy. Passing is a perfect example of a movie where the director and their actors are completely in sync. As you can tell, I fully appreciated the subtle performances on display here.
While watching, I couldn’t help but feel echoes of another director Hall worked with. Mentioning his name is akin to blasphemy these days, but the way Hall stages scenes and unobtrusively films the actors within them reminded me of Woody Allen. This, coupled with her use of black and white reminded me of Manhattan. Hall acted in Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and A Rainy Day in New York (2019), and I suspect she picked up on his directorial style when she worked with him on those films. If I would have made this comparison just four years ago, it would have been considered high praise. (Allen has been persona non grata since 2017.) I don’t bring this up to insult Hall or anyone associated with this film, as I feel it’s a legitimate way to view her movie. (My sincere apologies to anyone who is offended.)
In addition to Hall’s direction and the exemplary acting, the Passing has plenty of craftsmanship that make it such a rewarding experience. The movie is filmed entirely in gorgeous black and white, the fifth movie of its kind released in 2021. (The year will undoubtedly go down as The Year of Black and White Cinema.) DP Eduard Grau frames each scene with a formal yet elegant touch, with every moment and conversation seemingly captured by a professional photographer. The soundtrack cleverly bookmarks scenes with jazz piano riffs and accentuates Irene’s mood with sounds from the neighborhood trumpet player.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Passing is an excellent movie. I can’t wait to see how Hall follows this up.