Shot in black and white, Passing tells the tale of two childhood friends reuniting. Clare and Irene grew up in the same circle in Harlem. After a chance run-in at a hotel, Irene discovers that Clare had been passing for white for years. As their friendship slowly rekindles, their lives clash through fear and the reality of 1920s New York.
Tessa Thompson’s performance as Irene is steeped in visceral anxiety. Her ability to be present and yet miles away within the same breath is intoxicating. There is underlying jealousy that proves to be heartbreaking. Ruth Negga, as Clare, is dazzling. Her fearless energy and ceaseless charm are accompanied by desperation to belong. She wears Clare’s privilege like a beautifully expensive necklace. Both of these women share a complexity that makes Passing so extraordinary.
A piano jazz score is present in scene transitions, while organic background audio fills in dialogue-heavy moments. It adds to the overall theatrical feel of Passing. Bravo to Thompson and Negga’s and their dialect coaches. The breathy, rhythmic dynamics of the 20s are on full display. Nella Larsen’s story also speaks to the social dynamics within the household, regardless of race. We see the slow deterioration of a marriage, the dangers of keeping secrets, and the tragedy of history.
Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is bold. There’s a low hum of fear that exists in every moment of Passing. It keeps the viewer completely captivated. With a finale so emotionally chaotic, it is seared into your mind forever.