A lot can change when two friends haven’t seen each other in a dozen years. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is now married, has two sons, and lives in a handsome brownstone in Harlem. Clare (Ruth Negga) is also married, has a daughter, and lives in Chicago, though she’s currently visiting New York. It’s with a chance encounter in a Midtown tearoom that Irene learns something else has changed about Clare: her race.
It’s the 1920s, and Clare, who’s light-skinned, is passing as white. The practice of a Black person pretending to be white, while rare, and rare for obvious reasons, was once not uncommon. Its benefits in a deeply racist society were even more obvious. So was its danger. “I’d never risk it again,” Clare says of having a child — the risk being what her baby’s skin color might reveal about her mother’s race.
Less obvious are the psychic costs. Clare’s husband (Alexander Skarsgård) is forthrightly racist as well as usefully obtuse. “She won’t have [Blacks] near her,” he announces to Irene, “not even as a maid.” A remark like that is a reminder that both “Passing” and passing have elements of social comedy, even farce, which makes the tragedy they entail all the more disturbing.
To pass makes a person a double agent in her own existence — or “this pale life of mine,” as Clare, with conscious irony, describes that existence. Her animated and distracted manner may just come naturally to her, as might carrying a hip flask and not being shy about using it. Or maybe not.
Written and directed by Rebecca Hall, “Passing” is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. It’s told from Irene’s point of view. She’s at once fascinated by Clare’s ruse and repelled by it. Irene feels the pressures of being Black also, albeit in a very different way. Racially proud, she helps raise money for the Negro Welfare Committee and organizes its annual charity ball. At that event, a sympathetic white novelist (Bill Camp) is shocked when he realizes Clare is Black. Irene shrugs. ”We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?”
An important point: “Passing” is very much about race, not class. Irene’s husband is a doctor. They have a servant and own a car. Clare’s husband is a banker, and her daughter goes to boarding school. The slight stuffiness of the dialogue additionally indicates the women’s status. Their similar social and economic circumstances underscore how much the paths each has taken, as regards race, diverge.
This is a double debut for Hall, as director and screenwriter both. She’s long been known as one of our most gifted actors. So the quality of the performances she’s gotten from her cast is little surprise. Thompson (”Westworld,” the “Dear White People” movie), makes Irene’s combination of reserve and anxiety gripping. It’s Clare’s actions that enable the movie. It’s Irene’s response to them that drives it.
Negga (”Loving”) threads an emotional needle: She makes Clare compelling without ever seeking viewers’ sympathy. We understand why she made her decision without accepting it. That Camp’s character, modeled on the novelist Carl Van Vechten, is so far from the janitor he played in “The Queen’s Gambit” testifies to the effectiveness of his range. As Irene’s husband, André Holland (”Moonlight,” “High Flying Bird”) carries himself with a bearing that lets us understand how much Irene depends on her marriage yet feels oppressed by it. Skarsgård’s is the one performance that feels flat or — better word — overt. In fairness to him, that reflects the character and his behavior.
It’s a mark of Hall’s considerable assurance as a filmmaker that she made two unusual decisions, and they’re inspired: shooting in black-and-white and using the “classic” 4:3 aspect ratio (rather than the strongly horizontal ratio that has long been the norm). In an odd movie quirk, “Belfast,” also released this week, is in black-and-white. Both decisions work to distance the film in time — and are quite handsome, to boot. They also communicate a subtle sense of dislocation and dreaminess, this dream also being a nightmare.
Much of “Passing” could be a stage play: people talking in confined spaces, the confinement figurative as well as literal. It’s a chamber drama bearing the weight of several centuries. In unobtrusive ways, Hall keeps things from feeling stagey: exterior tracking shots, the presence of mirrors and including in the shot what they show. The ubiquity of mirrors is as much a thematic choice as visual. Reflections, illusion, appearance vs. reality: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is, and isn’t, the fairest one of all?
Written and directed by Rebecca Hall; adapted from Nella Larsen’s novel. Starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Alexander Skarsgård. Streaming on Netflix. 98 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material, racial slurs, smoking).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.