Shot in black and white that is, so effectively, mostly shades of gray, “Passing” is an extraordinary period drama that delicately imagines the interior lives of two women as they grapple with issues of race, identity and belonging.
Director Rebecca Hall has skillfully adapted Nella Larsen’s 1920s novel into this lean yet richly detailed story about childhood friends Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson), both biracial and light skinned, who grew up together in Chicago. They meet again by chance years later, on a sweltering afternoon in New York City. Irene, married to a doctor (Andre Holland) and the mother of two boys, lives in a handsome Harlem brownstone as the renaissance is in full bloom. She claims to love her middle class, respectable life, working with the Negro League and hosting sophisticated parties. But her reunion with Clare upends Irene’s surface satisfaction. Hall captures Irene’s inner life in the way she examines her domestic trappings and how she bristles at her husband’s insistence that their sons should know about news of a lynching.
Clare has been passing for white, her heritage hidden from her white husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) who makes racist comments in front of Irene, whom he assumes to be white, too. In one of the film’s many potent moments, Hall’s closeup of Thompson’s expressive face conveys Irene’s discomfort at John’s casual cruelty as well as shame at her own awkward silence.
Clare is eager to join Irene’s world, telling her friend that she is hungry to be around Negroes. The two women are drawn to one another yet wary and envious of the other’s life. It may not be surprising that Hall, such a fine actress, gets first rate performances from Negga and Thompson. But her insistence on shooting in black and white and in the 4:3 aspect ratio of a 1920s film is a confident style choice that suits the material. The boxy frame accentuates confinement and tension and Hall fills it with the women’s faces which dominate the center. The entire film is expertly crafted: the score, the costumes, and Edu Grau’s cinematography create an atmosphere that’s both intoxicating and chilling, perfect for this understated story about racism, classism and what it means to live authentically.