November 12th, 2021
STARRING: TESSA THOMPSON, RUTH NEGGA, ANDRE HOLLAND, BILL CAMP, ALEXANDER SKARSGARD
DIRECTED BY: REBECCA HALL
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
The way that director Rebecca Hall places the colors of black & white on the screen is not just a simple process of color grading or a matter of point and shoot. It’s a masterclass in using this style of cinematography to tell more than just a story, but a way we look at people differently, and how we learn from each character in a different light. The use of color is often a topic of cinema, where movies such as La La Land allow the color to pop, or The Artist transports the audiences to a silent era long gone, but Passing allows the lights, the color, and the shadows be an entire character to the story it tells. Rebecca Hall turns out a fascinating, nearly flawless first time behind a camera, with two enigmatic, straight-up excellent performances by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. Passing is a debut feature that certainly made the grade, dealing with a story of identity and privilege.
We open with a foggy screen, a light shining through, with the colors of black and white, fading into a view of a street, the camera moving up to the face of Irene (Tessa Thompson), she’s out shopping, on a hot summer day in 1920’s Harlem. She steps out of the heat to cool down and across the room sees a couple, a woman that looks white, with her white husband (Alexander Skarsgard), but that woman turns out to be an old neighborhood friend- Clare (Ruth Negga). They catch one another’s eye and because Irene doesn’t recognize her, it’s a surprise to see Clare living a lavish life, and passing as a white woman, especially in a time when black people were segregated from everything. But the relationship picks up again, with Clare visiting New York, and injecting herself into the life of Irene, forcing both to confront their own visions of who they are.
Make no mistake, I am the wrong person to be writing about a film like Passing, a narrative that deals with the incredibly difficult subject matter of what it means to be born of a mixed relationship. It also inspects how a person of that time period would use their whiteness to their advantage. I am, however, bright enough to appreciate nearly everything that Passing achieves, while filled with humility in what I can learn from the narrative subject matter. The screenplay and direction by Rebecca Hall is nearly perfect, my only quarrel is the film’s score- a twinkling of piano notes that never stops. Everything else is excellent, anchored by a trio of magnificent performances, and a gorgeous attention to lighting. I would argue that passing has some of the best directions of 2021, where Hall creates scenes which tell many stories in a frame. The way the light reflects off Irene in the window, the color of clothing that Clare wears, and the impeccable use of creating silhouettes of a person down a hallway. Passing is worthy of multiple viewings for the craft alone.
Hall transcends audiences back to the time, where the community you lived in was everything, and for Clare, changing her appearance, passing as a white person has led her to a new community that bathes in a life of luxury. The second and third acts become almost Shakespearean in their conflict, where Irene has a view of shielding her two boys from the ugly treatment of black people, while her husband Brian (Andre Holland as excellent as ever) hopes to expose them to the world that they will experience in one way or the other. That conflict of differing views drives the narrative path, of how Clare can easily bounce between two worlds, while Irene is fighting her own internal struggles of a freedom to be herself, while Clare lives a fraudulent existence that could be exposed to her racist husband at any point.
It’s not that the subject matter of Passing hasn’t been on display in cinema of the past- such as Elia Kazan’s Pinky and Gentleman’s Agreement, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, or the pinnacle conversation of mixed relationships in Jeff Nichols Loving. Some of those films have been problematic, but the question of one’s identity and self continues to be a conversation we must have. We need to educate ourselves on the experiences of others and that’s exactly what Passing is, a spectacular story of a person’s life and the way they experience it, digging into the conversation of the skin someone lives in. White, black, a darker black, a darker white, a lighter black, too black, not black enough, too white, and on. It boils down to a line that Irene says midway through, “We’re all of us passing for something or other”. One thing is for sure, Passing is one of the best movies of 2021, and there’s no way of hiding that.
PASSING IS PLAYING BRIEFLY IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON NETFLIX NOVEMBER 10TH, 2021
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady