Passing is Rebecca Hall’s beautifully realized directorial debut. Written, produced, and directed by Hall, the film is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 eponymous novel about two Black women who were best friends during their childhood days in Harlem and who, after having gone their separate ways for decades, are accidentally reunited in the tea room of a downtown NYC hotel.
The dramatic tension that’s palpable from the moment the two former friends meet and identify each other escalates from scene to scene as the women rediscover their bond, and learn of each other’s circumstances. Irene (Tessa Thompson), now a Harlem socialite and the wife of a prominent, well-to-do doctor, is stunned by Claire’s (Ruth Negga) appearance and flamboyant behavior. She has a blonde bob and is clearly ‘passing’ as a White women, one who is married to a White businessman who treats her to material riches but is, as is immediately evident, a diehard — and outspoken — racist. Through contact with Irene, Claire realizes how much she misses her roots and increasingly insinuates herself into Irene’s quiet and conventional life — with disastrous results.
Shot in black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, the beautifully composed film stylistically references the story’s set timeframe. Negga and Thompson lead a brilliant ensemble, all of whom deliver beautifully nuanced performances. The film, centering on the lives of two women who are socially responsible, conventional, prosperous, laudable members of the Black community, is an undeniably timely reminder of our nation’s history of heinous racial discrimination and turmoil. It’s a film that you will not forget.