Passing explores an area of racial identity rarely seen on screen, told from the perspective of two African American women in 1920s New York. A courageous and impressive directorial debut for Rebecca Hall
Passing is the directorial debut for actress Rebecca Hall which sees two childhood friends reunite as adults to explore the different directions their lives have taken and question some of the choices that led them there. Its set primarily in 1920s Harlem, stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in the lead roles and is based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen.
‘Passing’ during that period referred to a Black person who was light skinned enough, being able to pretend to be a white person (pass). This was done for numerous reasons, safety from violence, more opportunities in society and just generally being treated as an equal by those at the time who still only saw Black people as servants and maids.
The idea that some Black people were able to ‘pass’ as white and take that advantage led to not only resentment from darker skinned black people, but it also reinforced the idea that lighter skin was desirable and preferred which is an opinion and belief unfortunately still held by some in societies around the world today.
While this is a film about racial identity, a closer look reveals there are other interesting ideas being explored within this context of the story. Emotional infidelity, questionable sexuality, environmental isolation and even parents having quite different views on how to raise children. There is a lot going on but despite this, Rebecca Hall keeps things simple, with an almost gentle approach. There is no violence, loud arguments or graphic scenes designed to shock or grab headlines. There are many quiet introspective moments giving opportunities to soak up the tension simmering just beneath the surface.
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Tessa Thompson stars as Irene, living a good respectable life. In love and married to a doctor with two sons. She has a nice house, maids and seems fairly removed from the difficulties faced by many black people at that time. Shes living a middle-class life and by any measure is happy. She is also fair skinned enough to be able to pass for white when she wants to travel uptown to areas where black people wouldn’t be welcomed. Its during one if these trips she runs into Clare (Ruth Neega), an old friend she hasn’t seen since high school. Irene is shocked to see Clare isn’t simply passing occasionally but is actually living her life as a white woman.
Clare is the light and life of every party. Her laugh is infectious and her presence commands attention in any room she is in. She is also married to a white man who not only hates black people but also doesn’t know his wife Clare is black. Irene is married to a doctor, raising two sons and involved with organising successful local charity events.
Irene’s husband and sons are of a darker complexion, meaning they are not afforded the same opportunity to ‘pass’ if they wanted to. Irenes husband is more aware of the injustice and danger awaiting him and his sons and is intent on preparing his boys for the harsh reality they could face out in the world. Their mother Irene would rather let them be children and remain unaware.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga deliver very different but equally impressive performances. The nuances in every look and unspoken moment always allude to much more going on beneath the surface, possibly even a romantic relationship in their past. Rebecca Hall’s decision to choose a complex and unfamiliar story about race as her first film was courageous.
With the current climate, a white woman telling a story about two black women’s experience may cause some to question why a woman of colour was not directing this story. There should be more opportunities for women of colour and overall increased diversity within the industry. But a story should also be told by whoever connects with and can deliver the material best and there is no evidence that it must be someone identical to the subject of the story.
I don’t recall many complaints when Steven Spielberg directed The Colour Purple, which was from the perspective of a black woman. Rebecca Hall has written, produced and directed this film and approached it from a place of respect and empathy. The fact that Rebecca’s maternal grandfather was a light skinned African American who ‘passed’ as white for his whole life means the experience of making the film was more personal for her and even therapeutic, helping her understand her own family history better and increasing her own investment in telling the story correctly.
The film is shot in in black and white which might be seen as gimmicky by some but serves a purpose relevant to the film. It adds a beauty which perfectly captures and enhances every silent glance as well as the classy atmosphere of 1920s Harlem. The black and white also makes the skin colour of the lead characters ambiguous. Visually we can only see those who are clearly black or white, allowing no opportunity for the nuisances of different shades of the African American characters.
Passing is a delicate and intimate film, beautifully shot with a slightly complex subject matter. It’s not loud or flashy and doesn’t rely on big moments or shocking violence to tell what a very personal story of two women, reflecting on the choices they have made. Irene’s life was stable, and, in a way, her ignorance was bliss. Clare was already aware she wasn’t genuinely happy with the ‘perfect’ life she had created. She entered Irenes life like a whirlwind and became the catalyst for change and revelation for both herself and Irene.
The subject matter may not interest all and the music, sights and sounds of 1920s New York may not be to everyone’s taste. But the film is beautiful and the performances top notch making this a great debut for Rebecca Hall