For years, my mother has told me stories about my Aunt Francis, who would return to St. Louis in the 40’s, with Louis Vuitton luggage and silk stockings. Items that NO black woman could walk into a store and purchase, unless you were passing, which was precisely the case. Unfortunately, this story isn’t uncommon and often times comes with a price tag that is costly in more ways than one.
Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class fair-skinned Black woman, dips into the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel to escape a hot summer day when she spots a blond woman intensely staring her down across the room. It was Clare, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) rushes over and it turns out they were in high school together. While both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, their renewed acquaintance threatens and creates conflict for them both.
Passing is more than a psychological thriller about obsession, repression, and lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully crafted realities. It’s a film about identity, complexity of forbidden love, what is expected versus what is desired and to what depths jealousy can destroy you from the inside out. It examines, in a very subtle manner why some were content being Black and why others felt like a better life was to be lived as white. After all, aren’t we all passing for something or another in the confines of navigating this thing called humanity?
In her debut feature, Rebecca Hall’s conceptional, mesmerizing choice to infiltrate black and white cinematography allows the depth of Nella Larsen’s acclaimed novel to breath through levels of authenticity while navigating uncomfortable hair-on-the-neck tensions of American racism. It’s a sentiment and theme that is more relevant today than when the novel was released in the late 20’s. Hall’s use of shadows, from the opening shot to falling snow onto a grayish-black courtyard are beautifully poetic in capturing the alluring tragic element of these characters and their world. Especially those out-of focus shots of Rennie as she looks a a letter from Clare at the very moment their lives begin to spin out. The use of the piano instrumental, “Homeless Wanderer” was Hall’s inspiration while penning this screenplay, and is perfectly placed throughout the film providing a calm, yet chaotic sensibility from a sound perspective.
Nothing, and I mean nothing can hold a candle to the performance of Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga and Andre Holland in this film. All three nail every second in every frame and every moment. Negga, is borderline invoking the ‘tragic mulatto’ giving an intensely sensuous vibe of Blanche DuBois from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that is pitch perfect. You can barely keep your eyes off her as she commands attention with a single gaze. Clare (Negga) is a walking duality, yet is everything she needs to be in order to live. Negga makes Clare alluring, coy, mysterious and a high class drama queen. Thompson, is restrained in her emotions, which often times manifests in the clutching of objects like a teapot, purse or arm walking down the street. She is a master at leaving emotions bubbling slightly under the surface like a pot of boiling water spilling over at any given moment and accomplishes that task through intentional scattered breathing as a coping mechanism. Seriously, is there any character she can’t play. She is simply brilliant. Andre’ Holland’s emotions bubble under the surface as well. He never raises his voice or is insulting to Rennie. He’s simply a man that loves his wife…or does he? Holland is aa class act and along with his co-stars makes subtlety look so appealing and intriguing to watch.
Growing up watching black and white films, I appreciate what Hall has accomplished with Passing. She literally allows the audience not be distracted by colors, costumes, yet takes the film and squeezed it down to nothing but a face. Stories of Black people are so rich in America, yet every time we have seen a film approaching the subject of passing for white the plot and it’s characters are overly melodramatic. Passing visits that a lane from time to time, but overall succeeds in delicately sharing a story that will haunt your conscious and sub-conscious on aa visceral level you can’t quite shake…in the best way possible. For Clare, my Aunt Frances and the hundreds of women who lived one existence while attempting to eviscerate the old one, Passing tells their story with dignity and poise leaving you with an ending that will have you draw dropped for days.