Based on Nella Larsen’s same-named novella, Rebecca Hall‘s powerful 1920s-set directorial debut, Passing, tells the story of two friends — Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) — who unexpectedly reunite after a long separation, only to discover that their lives have taken very different trajectories. As it reveals what happens after their paths re-cross, the film examines complex issues related to race, identity, marriage, motherhood, and more.
When the two women run into each other in the tea room of a fancy Manhattan hotel, they’re immediately drawn to reconnect with each other. Irene initially tries to keep Clare at arm’s length, partly because she fears what might happen to her old friend if the truth about her is discovered and partly because she doesn’t trust Clare’s enthusiastic interest in Irene’s home life with her doctor husband, Brian (Andre Holland), and their two sons. Irene also doesn’t seem to like thinking about the difficult subjects that Clare’s reappearance brings to the forefront — or, really, anything that ripples the smooth waters of her life. She wants to enjoy the relative security of the community that embraces her family and to protect her children from the harsh realities of racism in the United States, something that Brian becomes increasingly frustrated by.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nell Minow: Rebecca Hall makes an impressive debut as a writer/director with Passing, a rare film that allows the interior life of its female characters to take center stage. She is an actor who knows how to get the best from her outstanding cast, who give layered and complex performances in a layered and complex film. It skillfully avoids the usual drama and confrontations in favor of far more compelling, subtle struggles. And it just might bring back cloche hats, which look fabulous on these gorgeous actresses.
Sherin Nicole 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. Read full review
Pam Grady: Actor Rebecca Hall makes a haunting writing/directing debut with her adaptation of Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larson’s 1929 novel. Childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) are delighted to renew their relationship as adults – at least, initially. Biracial women who can pass as white, both lean into that ability within a racist society. But Irene, married to African-American doctor Brian (Andre Holland) and the mother of two sons, is a proud Black woman who passes only on occasion, while Clare lives in disguise, having married John (Alexander Skarsgård), a vicious racist, for the creature comforts he can provide. The reunion with Irene does not just revive an important friendship, it pulls Clare back to her old neighborhood, reigniting old jealousies (and perhaps desires) with Irene and risking John discovering her secret. Brilliantly shot by cinematographer Edward Grau in luminous black and white, the film recreates both a bygone era and the racism that still plagues society, underlined by Thompson and Negga’s dazzling performances.
Marilyn Ferdinand 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. 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. Read full review
Leslie Combemale Only a few years ago, if Passing had been made at all, it would have been directed by a white man, with an all male all white crew. Gratefully, change, however slow, is happening, as exampled by Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, using a screenplay she adapted from Nella Larsen’s novel. She and the diverse team of producers hired Black Englishman Devonté Hynes to score the film, and there are multiple female Heads of Departments including editor Sabine Hoffman, production designer Nora Mendis, and costume designer Paige Mitchell. These collaborations led to an exquisitely rich visual world that demonstrates why black and white can outclass color in both storytelling and expressing nuance. Supporting the film with both views and word of mouth is smart, not just for the subject matter or because Hall chose a gender-balanced crew, but because in all aspects, from the acting to the storytelling to the visuals, Passing is beautifully rendered.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Passing is a labor of love for British actor-turned-director Rebecca Hall, who recently discovered that her own mother’s family had passed as white in Detroit. Shot in black and white and in 4:3 aspect ratio, Hall’s directorial debut is a deeply personal endeavor bolstered by a fabulous cinematographer (Edu Grau), and foremost, the performances of its two excellent leads, Tessa Thompson (as Irene) and Ruth Negga (as Clare). Hall pays tribute to the various themes Larsen explored in the 1929 novella while also delving into more contemporary ideas of intersectionality and sexuality. Despite being considered an example of the “tragic mulatto” in literary history – the character of Clare subverts that cliché by being charming, joyful, sensual, and even reckless. Sure, she knows her life as a white-passing woman is precarious, but she refuses to let her fear stop her from doing whatever she wants. Meanwhile, Irene, who’s supposedly living free and without fear, is still limited by being a Black woman in 1920s America. Thompson’s quiet, nuanced performance is a fabulous foil to Negga’s breathy, irresistible charm. I never thought a director would manage to do Larsen’s book justice, but Hall has managed it, making it clear that nearly 100 years after its publication, Passing continues to resonate.
Jennifer Merin 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. Read full review
Loren King 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. Read full review. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore 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. Read full full review.
Cate Marquis Actress-turned-director Rebecca Hall makes a stunning directorial debut with Passing, a drama set in the Roaring 20s about two women, once childhood friends, who meet again accidentally one hot summer day in New York. Both women are Black but one of them, Clare (Ruth Negga), is “passing” as white, married to a successful white banker, who has no idea his wife is Black. The other woman, Irene (Tessa Thompson), is also living a comfortable, prosperous life, as the wife of a Black doctor in Harlem. While the two women have made different choices, they both seem happy with their lives, yet Clare very much wants to reconnect with Irene. Irene, who clearly disapproves of Clare’s choice to “pass” as white, seems cool to the idea but they do meet again. Adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel and shot in gorgeous black-and-white, Passing explores issues of race, racism, and the practice of “passing” but it also delves into women’s satisfaction with their lives, the dynamics of friendship and contrasting personalities, in a drama that almost borders on psychological thriller. Director Hall draws fine performances from Negga and Thompson, and shows a firm hand as the story unfolds from the heat of summer to the chill of winter and its devastation conclusion.
Directors: Rebecca Hall
Release Date: October 27, 2021
Running Time: 98 minutes
Screenwriter: Rebecca Hall based on the novel by Nella Larsen
Distribution Company: Netflix
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin