Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga both excel in a story about race and themes.
Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut of “Passing” reminds us about the origin of the title. Passing was when light skinned African-Americans were able to be passed off as white, and this has been going on in reality and movies during the period. It would either be considered as survival or reckless. It all depends on how the person would preside over his/her surroundings.
The story is based on the 1929 book by Nella Larson, and is shot in black and white to reflect on the passing set-up, which would seem ideal to the audience’s perspective, but in the movie’s perspective, that would be lucky. Hall is able to adapt the book with enough courage and emotions, especially from her choice of actresses Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, both of whom know the stakes and how they thrive.
Seeing this at the New York Film Festival was a challenging experience for me, because Clare Bellew (Negga), a light-skinned African-American Chicago woman, who is married to the white, racist, and wealthy John (Alexander Skarsgard). How she was able to pull off this act, especially in the movie’s black and white format, is utterly amazing, and she’s willing to get what she wants in this world.
Another mixed-race woman who also passes as white in public places is her childhood friend-Irene Redfield or Reenie for short (Thompson), who lives in Harlem with her black doctor husband Brain (Andre Holland) and their two boys. She mostly wears a big hat and keeps her head lower, and she’s quite a determined woman. She reunites with Clare on a visit in Chicago.
Seeing how Thompson and Negga both ignite the screen as the passing women is a reminder that they are capable of starring in films about racism. I’ve started to recognize Thompson more after seeing her in “Dear White People,” while Negga was radiant in the true story about a mixed marriage in the ’60s in “Loving.” And seeing them in “Passing” reminds me of those two films.
Clare and John move to New York, and while the husband is away, the wife will play. Reenie enjoys Clare’s visits in her neighborhood, but it doesn’t last long, because she worries that her husband might be having an affair with Clare, especially since she’s attractive.
On the side, besides the alleged affair, Reenie constantly criticizes Brian for explaining to their young children the harsh realities of racism and lynching. She wants them to be happy, as any loving mother would, while he wants them to be prepared for what is yet to come, especially since one of the boys has been labeled a you know what in school. Holland, who won our hearts with “Moonlight” is well-picked to play the husband, who’s well-meaning and outspoken.
“Passing” lags in during some of the party scenes, but it’s still faithful enough to keep the story alive. Hall is able to transcend from an actress to a filmmaker, who guides the two leading ladies with a sense of passion and style. The themes for the story reflect their realities, given its 20s time period, and the cinematography by Edward Grau makes the black and white format look convincing, especially with all the passing.
Nina Yang Bongiovi, Chaz Ebert (Roger’s widow), and Forrest Whitaker are among the producers with Hall, and they present the film with a lot of heart, a lot of moods and tones, and some thrills, if you count the racist husband finding out about his wife’s true ethnicity. He’s given less to do, but the story isn’t about him; it’s about how passing women can live their lives, and Thompson and Negga both deliver radiant performances.
In Select Theaters This Wednesday
Streaming on Netflix November 10