Last Updated on March 9, 2022
With mesmerizing performances by stars Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, “Passing” (2021) is an emotionally charged look at how far two women are willing to go to get the lives they want.
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First-time director Rebecca Hall adapted the screenplay from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, which addresses the historic practice of light-skinned African Americans passing as white for convenience, safety, or economic opportunity.
This is a deeply personal film for Hall; her mother, the late opera singer Maria Ewing, was the biracial daughter of a Black man and a Dutch woman, and Hall recalls feeling a profound connection with Larsen’s book when she first read it.
Yet the concept of racial passing is just one lens through which Hall explores her characters’ lives. The two women grapple with love, envy, sexuality, and motherhood as they deepen their friendship, questioning every choice they’ve made in their attempts to pursue happiness.
On a blazingly hot day in 1920s New York City, Irene (Tessa Thompson, Sylvie’s Love) stops for a cool drink at a whites-only hotel and runs into her childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga, Loving). Both women are passing for white at the hotel, but as they catch up on each other’s lives, Irene realizes that Clare is actually passing for white every day of her life. Married to an outright, repugnant racist (Alexander Skarsgård, The Legend of Tarzan), Clare confides in her old friend that she was secretly terrified her daughter would be born “dark.”
Although Clare clearly wants to maintain their renewed acquaintance, Irene (Clare persists in using her childhood nickname, “Reenie”) makes a hasty exit and tries to forget all about it. She’s happy, she tells her husband (André Holland, The Knick) one evening; she can’t imagine wanting another life so much she’d risk everything to get it.
Despite her outward contentment, Clare herself is desperately lonely. Soon she’s writing letters and calling on Reenie at her well-appointed Harlem home, explaining that their chance encounter made her realize just how much she missed the culture of her childhood. Reenie overcomes her initial hesitation and invites Clare into her life, letting her tag along to jazzy Negro Welfare League dances and bridge nights. Clare’s vivacious approach to life is infectious, and at first quiet, reserved Reenie enjoys getting to share in her friend’s sense of fun.
But then she notices how much happier her husband is when Clare is around. And how disappointed her sons are when Clare can’t come to dinner. As much as Reenie loves her company, she begins to resent Clare, but even that is complicated by her own unspoken attraction to her friend. It’s only a matter of time before the delicate fabric of their rekindled friendship frays and rips apart.
First-time director Rebecca Hall keeps “Passing” tightly focused around her two leads, both narratively and visually. Her use of a classic 4:3 aspect ratio in monochrome centers the two women and their relationship, and only rarely does she pan out to a well-placed backdrop to remind us we’re in the 1920s.
Hall has recounted how much she had to fight for the film to be shot in black and white; by draining all the color out of the film, she felt she could focus viewers’ attention on the weight of racial categorizations. While these visual choices feel jarring and old-fashioned at first, they work well with the intimate subject matter of “Passing.”
Negga and Thompson carry the film. Negga, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role in 2016’s “Loving,” sparkles as the effervescent Clare; it’s easy to understand why Reenie is so drawn to her. And Thompson delivers a powerhouse performance as a woman whose outward reserve masks a welter of emotions. The two women are enthralling, both together and individually.
While Clare has made the most overt choice to pass, sacrificing nearly everything to achieve a life of comfort and privilege, Reenie knows she’s not the only one. As she reflects to her friend Hugh, a married writer who’s likely passing for straight, “We’re all of us passing for something or other. Aren’t we?”
The real question, then, is how far are these characters willing to go to protect the lives they’ve worked so hard to build. The answer, in this moving and emotionally charged film, is unsettling.
“Passing” (2021) is AVAILABLE to STREAM
Watch the trailer below.
Abby Murphy writes young adult books about girls discovering their strengths. A member of SCBWI and The Historical Novel Society, she is represented by Laura Crockett of Triada US Literary Agency. You can visit her blog here, where she writes about reading, writing, history, and her incurable Anglophilia.
If you enjoyed this post, wander over to The Period Films List. You’ll especially like the Best Period Dramas: Interwar Era list.