Adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 book of the same name, debutant director Rebecca Hall’s ‘Passing’, filmed in stark black-and-white tones, is a measured, quiet drama about race, identity and society in New York in the 1920s.
Putting into context, ‘Passing’ means when members of a racial, ethnic, or religious group present themselves as belonging to another group to gain more social clout than they originally did, at times escaping oppression and even death.
In this case, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) are a pair of mixed-race friends from childhood who reconnect as adults in dramatically different circumstances.
There is a huge difference between the current lives of these two Afro-American friends. Although Irene occasionally tries the act of ‘passing’ in the white areas, she lives comfortably in the black neighbourhood of Harlem with her dark-skinned husband, Dr Brian Redflied (Andre Holland), and her two sons. She’s a part of a committee that organises social functions for the ‘Negro Welfare League’ and tries to protect her children from the horrors of racism.
Clare, on the other hand, is a free spirit and social interloper, more adventurous with her act of ‘passing’. She is married to John (Alexander Skarsgard), a racist white man, and after her chance meeting with Irene in an upscale restaurant, she works herself back into Irene’s life, using her to experience life in the black neighbourhood she left behind long ago. And by her doing so, she stirs up a string of complexities in their contentious frenemy status.
Both Thompson and Negga, imprisoned by the varied shackles of gender, race, class, and perhaps the sexual orientation of their time, give nuanced and memorable performances. But Thompson, who generally is a natural in front of the camera, becomes distracting through her overly melodramatic and unnatural reactions.
The black-and-white aesthetics of the frames are used to darken or lighten the skin tones of the actors. It brings about the realism behind the ‘passing’ phenomenon. Similarly, the cinematographer plays with lighting to contrast realities. While the photography conveys a mood of warmth, the story is rather tepid and feels undercooked.
The script falters in its final act. Considering the characters with their elements of mystery, forbidden romance and politics, the narrative feels too far-fetched and ambiguous. It is the sort of ending that will leave viewers pondering over its closing moments and their implications.
–By Troy Ribeiro