There are so many interesting intersections of identity at play in Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut Passing that it’s easy to forget a film is happening in front of you.
It’s rare to find a first-time director who is so enthusiastic to address the nuances of issues like colorism, class, and womanhood within a single project, let alone in the form of an ambitious 1920s period drama shot in black and white and crammed into a narrow 4:3 aspect ratio. From its promising premise—adapted from a 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel by Nella Larsen—it’s already apparent how deft the hands molding the film have to be to properly draw out its potential without spinning it out of orbit. And Hall, it turns out, has those hands. But crafting an intelligent, edifying, socially conscious examination into race in America is one thing; doing it while telling a rich and compelling story is another.
Passing concerns two well-off black women in 1920s New York City, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), who randomly meet for the first time in years in a hotel tearoom on a scorching hot day. As it turns out, both Irene and Clare are capable of passing for white, but only Clare makes a lifestyle of it; with her blond hair, she has managed to marry and mother children with a staunchly racist upper-class white man (Alexander Skarsgård).
Meanwhile, Irene, who, with makeup and oversized hats to shroud her face, only ever disguises herself as a white woman “out of convenience”, lives in Harlem with her husband, a black doctor named Brian (André Holland). Their chance meeting awakens Clare’s latent desire to be around black culture again, threatening the life she built as well as — thanks to her dubious interest in Brian — Irene’s domestic contentment.
The entire film hinges on the juxtaposition between Irene and Claire’s circumstances. Clare’s assumed whiteness has afforded her a success she would never be able to access as a darker black woman, but it’s only a superficial security contingent on a fragile lie. Irene can perform a less convincing whiteness, which has its benefits—including access to white-dominated spaces—but its obvious limitations, as well. More important is the contrast between the women’s public and private sublimation of identity; Irene has the privilege, she believes, of being her truest self at home, but Clare must always be guarded, maintaining an interior fear and paranoia of her own identity.
From the outset, Passing is adept at considering what it means to blur the shade of one’s skin color and transcend the socially invented barriers of race, as well as exploring the spectrum of racial acceptance from a class- and gender-based perspective.
What it does less convincingly is tell a cohesive, emotionally resonant story. Irene and Clare work best as conduits for the film’s thematic preoccupations rather than three-dimensional characters. Their suppressed conflict never implodes, and their complex friendship never sinks in. They are distant, not just from each other, but from everyone else in their lives, to the point that emotions never register and are never asserted. That distance affirms the film’s message that much more, but it doesn’t necessarily make for appealing cinema, and it makes Clare and Brian’s sudden marital strife and the abrupt, visceral climax feel strangely out of step with the film’s more cerebral tilt.
Stylistically, Passing is gilded in a sublime elegance that serves its own narrative functions. The black-and-white cinematography by Edu Grau is sleek and velvety, reinforcing the posh and static lives of the lead women by being framed just so and arranged to emphasize the refinement of their environment over all else. The tighter aspect ratio and black-and-white look help establish period feel but also have a thematic purpose of their own: the unrealized feeling of domestic claustrophobia of the former and the muddling of racial bounds of the latter. It’s a gorgeous film to take in, which makes it that much easier to appreciate, but it sadly can’t inject life into the narrative where there is none.
On the whole, Passing does a lot of hinting and circling. So many things are suggested but never revealed: adultery, homosexuality, violent jealousy. It’s a colder, more restrained film than its subject matter would normally bring out, and while that allows Hall to spend more time on developing the film’s rich subtextual layer, it’s far too neglectful of its crucial storytelling foundation. It slingshots between conflicts and plot ideas too quickly, and its actors—especially Thompson—never get a chance to fully embody the emotional core of their characters.
There’s a lot to study here about the need for racial solidarity, community, and cultural connection, about what it means to shield yourself and your family from the unfortunate realities of racial dynamics, and about how the tiniest deviations in identity can have a tremendous effect on lived experience. I recommend it for that subtle intellect alone. But because it’s so suffocated by ideas and so emotionally stunted, it will, unfortunately, fail to attract everyone that it should.
At one point, Irene remarks to her husband about Clare and people like her, “You’d think they’d be satisfied being white.” Brian responds, “Who’s satisfied with being anything?” Ironically, Passing is not. It’s a film about identity that suffers from an identity crisis of its own.