Everything about Passing, the astonishing and just-plain-satisfying debut of actor Rebecca Hall as a writer and director, feels like a revelation. This is a movie that is simultaneously incredibly modern, like it could only have been made today, but also could be a little treasure rediscovered from pre-Code Hollywood. Not just because it’s based on a novel, by Nella Larsen, from 1929. And not just because of Hall’s choices to shoot in black-and-white and in an old-fashioned square aspect ratio. But because it feels like Passing could have been one of the movies that inspired that absolute bastard Will H. Hays to implement his censorious code.
A movie about the interior lives of Black women? (Are Black women human? Signs point to yes!) About happy — and materially successful — Black family life that is able to find joy even in a society that wants to crush it? About the perniciousness of racism that leads some Black people, when they are able to, to pretend they are White? That suggests that while racism is of course incredibly real and dangerous, race itself is complete invention that would not endure if it were not serving some insidious purpose?
Oh yes, Passing is bone-deep subversive. Even today. It shouldn’t have to be, but thank goodness that it is.
There is such calming ordinariness, in a way that we see onscreen almost vanishingly, in Passing’s portrait of Irene (Tessa Thompson: Men in Black: International, Avengers: Endgame). We meet her as she’s out and about on a sweltering summer’s day in Manhattan, doing little shopping chores — looking for a birthday gift for one of her young sons — then stopping for a refreshment of tea at a hotel cafe. Though we also feel her tension, her trepidation, in every interaction, from shop clerk to hotel doorman, as she peeks out from under the rim of her stylish summer hat: Is she, a Black woman, being treated politely because she is encountering White people willing to let her be… or is she actually passing for White, and hence flying under the racial radar? This might be a thing we, as viewers, didn’t clock if we didn’t know in advance what the movie was about, but as Hall presents Irene, as Thompson plays her anxious coyness, and as our foreknowledge allows, Passing drips with a quiet dread from its opening moments.
But that’s nothing to what happens when, in that hotel cafe, Irene runs into an old friend from school she hasn’t seen for years: Clare (Ruth Negga: Warcraft, World War Z), who is passing for White so well that her obnoxiously racist husband, wealthy banker John (Alexander Skarsgård: Godzilla vs. Kong, Long Shot), doesn’t even realize his wife is a Negro. (The film uses appropriate historical language, so Negro and colored are used as synonyms for Black. In fact, I don’t think the word Black is used at all, at least not in the way we use it today. And a forewarning: The n-word also makes a very occasional appearance.)
The women reconnect, and a new friendship slowly develops between them, which we witness very much from Irene’s delicately half-baffled, half-astonished perspective. The risk with which Clare lives seems to unnerve Irene… and it unnerves us, too. There’s a brittle whistling-past-the-graveyard ominousness to Negga’s performance, as if Clare, who bursts with joie de vivre, is perhaps desperate to enjoy the precarious charm of her life while she can, because it could be snatched away at any moment.
Obviously I have no idea what it means to move through this world with Black skin, but I wonder if that’s something that rings true still for Black people today, in a way that has nothing to do with “passing.” That no matter how happy you are just living your life, at any moment something or someone could remind you that you are, in the eyes of some, different, less than. Other.
Hall’s own family history — one of her grandfathers was of African-American and White European heritage who passed for white — is part of the extraordinary tapestry of identity woven into Passing. Just as Edu Grau’s (Suffragette, The Gift) gorgeous cinematography eliminates subtle differences in skin tone among the cast, Hall’s approach to her story shares Irene’s flummoxed bemusement. What does “race” mean, anyway, when skin color occurs along a spectrum, and when the perceptions of others can be so malleable?
The lovely jazz-age-inspired score by Devonté Hynes (Fifty Shades of Grey, Palo Alto) among other aspects of the film — Prohibition! — roots Passing in 1920s New York, but it’s universal, too. This is a movie not only about race but also about class, motherhood, and marriage. (Irene is also married, to Brian [André Holland: Moonlight, Selma], a doctor.) It’s about how all the many things that are expected of us from the world become things we embrace, or push back against, or struggle to reconcile within ourselves. As Irene notes, “We’re all of us passing for something or other.” That, like the film as a whole, is beautiful, and beautifully wise.