Actress Rebecca Hall adapts and directs the intoxicating, and intricately-designed, “Passing,” a new film (Hall’s first as a director) based on the 1929 novella from author Nella Larsen.
This is a story that confronts the realities of the act of “passing,” which refers to when members of minority communities (blacks, Jews, etc) were forced to pass as white to sidestep societal prejudices.
Set in New York during the Harlem renaissance of the twenties (a time when people of color were compelled to get ahead in careers and life through the act of passing), Hall’s film tells the story of two light-skinned black women who are confronted with their mutually-conflicting values on racial identity.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga give Oscar-worthy performances as Irene and Claire, two old friends who run into one another on a hot day in the white area of the city.
Both women pass for white, with Claire existing in white society, as she is the wife of a Caucasian man (Alexander Skarsgård) who does not know she is a black woman. In one well-acted but hard to watch scene, Skarsgard reveals to Irene a racist nickname for his wife because, for reasons he can’t explain, her skin gets a bit darker from time to time.
Irene is married as well and lives comfortably in Harlem with her husband and two young sons. Her husband (the always great André Holland) is devoted to his family but struggles with Irene to bring the reality of being black in America to their sons.
Irene’s life becomes complicated because of Claire’s return. While Irene occasionally sneaks into the White areas of the city to enjoy a taste of the good life, she is not unhappy to be black. She is unhappy to live in a country where she cannot celebrate her blackness.
In contrast, Claire claims to be happy in her life but reveals that she would rather be a part of the black community.
Hall has crafted the piece with a poet’s eye. There is deliberate precision to her framing and placing of her actors. Along with her cinematographer Eduard Grau, Hall creates a series of images that are as artistic as they are intoxicating to watch and to shoot the film in black and white in 4:3-aspect-ratio was smart. To remove the color from a film that is completely about color is a kind of masterstroke.
“Passing” is a film of complexity and passion. Hall’s work as a filmmaker shows a maturity and focus that announces her as a filmmaker with a voice all her own.
This film premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival.