Identity has emerged as a mainstream concern as marginalized communities and mixed-race individuals demand recognition and their full share of opportunities and benefits long denied to them. Of course, questions of identity and the rewards and punishments meted out accordingly are nothing new. Actor Rebecca Hall has chosen to make her directorial debut with a screen adaptation of Passing, a celebrated novella written in 1929 by Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen about the phenomenon of passing for white among light-skinned African Americans.
Hall was drawn to the project because her maternal grandfather and other members of her family had passed for white to gain access to the power, position, and full citizenship normally denied to African Americans. Yet the phenomenon of passing isn’t dealt with as an issue of the week. As might be expected of an actor turned director, the complicated and emotional toll of racism takes center stage.
Irene (Tessa Thompson) is strongly attracted to her childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), whom she meets in a tearoom on the white side of New York City. Clare is passing and married to a rich racist, but misses the Black community in Harlem, where the two women grew up. She starts visiting Irene at her Harlem home and becomes a welcome presence to Irene’s two sons and her husband, Brian (André Holland), a prosperous doctor.
The tight repression Irene has built her life around as a proper, well-to-do Black woman starts to crumble in the face of Clare’s dangerously thrilling masquerade, her own wannabe white longings that have led her to pass from time to time, and her anger at not being good enough in the eyes of white America. When Irene starts making various messes—a broken flowerpot, an overboiled pan of milk, a shattered teapot—and says what she thinks to a group of people, including a famous white author who frequents Harlem to get material for his books, there is sure to be a reckoning.
Passing doesn’t live on the surface of its subject, but instead bores into the costs of living a lie. And passing is only one kind of lie.