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Green Light in the City

Film Review: Passing

17 November 21 words: Yasmin Turner

Life is far from black and white in Rebecca Hall’s stylish and racially intimate directorial debut…

Director: Rebecca Hall 
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland
Running time: 98 minutes 

Films about “passing” were once a well-loved genre in Hollywood during the 1940s and 50s, when segregation was paramount and anybody who even had a trace of African ancestry was deemed Black with the “one-drop rule”. The genre was popularised, with audiences enjoying each aspect that encompassed it: the secrets, the scandal and the sheer (mostly) feminine glamour of the portrayals. Examples include George Sidney’s musical sensation Show Boat (1951) and Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949) which both feature light-skinned, mixed-race characters who pass as White in the hope of receiving White privilege.

Reliving the genre, Rebecca Hall, the star of Vicky Christina Barcelona, produces her directorial debut with the adaptation of Nella Larsen’s influential 1929 novel Passing. Two women of colour, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), are former school friends and run into each other by chance at an exclusive hotel in Manhattan during prohibition-era America. They are both fairly light-skinned, however Irene is shocked to discover her friend’s secret in the form of her now even paler skin and bleached-blonde curls. Clare is passing for White and not even her husband – White, wealthy and eye-wateringly racist John (Alexander Skarsgård) – knows about it. 

In an almost surreal encounter, a mystic murmur manifests in Irene and Clare’s meeting, as if the women are the ghosts of each other’s differing life choices. But it is not just the case for Black and White; in one way or another, many of the characters are passing for something. As Irene puts it bluntly, “We’re all of us passing for one thing or different.” Irene herself is passing for successful and middle-class, with her entry into the lavish White artistic circles through her friendship with White novelist Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), who is passing for straight. Irene’s middle-class life and associations with the White, elite art scene is synonymous with theorist Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks later in 1952 that discussed his own experiences of the actions by Black subjects living in a White world – a concept also heavily scrutinised by Malcolm X, among others.

Hall directs this stylish piece with such intelligence and sensitivity, raising fundamental questions about each and everyone’s own identity

As well as passing for White, Clare is also passing for happily married with her White husband who “hates” any person of colour. The chance meeting with Irene triggers an immense homesickness for Clare’s Black identity and she demands entry to Irene’s life, eventually even desiring Irene’s Black husband Brian (André Holland). 

An eerie repetitive piano track accompanies the drama as it unfolds, the repetition mimicking the simplicity to the everyday; for all the events focus on two women and their daily lives. The film is shot in a crisp monochrome which gracefully finesses the issue of skin colour and emphasises the moral grey area of the topic. Twinned with a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, the film fits right into its period setting. 

The film covers a phenomenon that is not commonly known by the majority, but affected countless people who left behind their families, friends and communities in search of White superiority. Hall directs this stylish piece with such intelligence and sensitivity, raising fundamental questions about each and everyone’s own identity. Are you passing for something?

Did you know? Making the film, Passing, allowed director Rebecca Hall to understand her own heritage better, as her own maternal grandfather was African American and spent most of his life passing for White.

Passing is now available on Netflix

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