There is a tension running through Passing that is mirrored in Tessa Thompson’s performance: the stiffness in her jaw, the tightness between her eyes, the rigidity of her spine. As the audience, we understand. It is the result of lies so brittle a whisper could break them apart. And if we are Black that tension goes beyond empathy, it is recognition. In the shimmering film by Rebecca Hall, adapted from the lauded novel by Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are a pair of reunited friends. Both from uptown, both wives, both well-to-do; one white presenting and the other “passing” for white.
From the moment the two run into each other in a tearoom, everything in us screams they should never meet again, and our caution finds footing as they become more and more entwined. Negga’s Clare longs for the joy of being fully herself (being “openly Black” as the meme goes). Thompson’s Irene wants things she doesn’t speak of but, whether jealousy or desire, her focus is on the beauty of Irene’s spirit.
When I tell you Passing is complicated, that is only a teaser. Hall’s film is an artful conundrum, rendered in black and white and framed in classic 4:3 ratio to transport us back to an era when passing could either free you from racism or destroy you because of it. As a reflection of what it must’ve been like to live that dangerous lie, Passing digs its fingernails into your skin and doesn’t relent until it fades to black. That’s the point when you’ll exhale. The tension that shadows the two women throughout the film is fear—and they make you feel it.