Movie Review: Passing

I like movies that make me think about situations or subjects that I never knew existed. That’s certainly the case with PASSING, the impressive directorial feature debut of Rebecca Hall (GODZILLA VS. KONG; A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK; PROFESSOR MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMEN). Following America’s Great Migration, which began in the late 1910s when around six million African-Americans from the rural southern states moved to the urban northern and midwestern states, many African-Americans who were light-skinned chose to pass themselves off as white in order to break away from the overt and covert racism and restrictions that they faced even in their new environs.

PASSING tells the story of two light-skinned black women who were childhood friends in Chicago and who bump into each other years later in 1920s New York. Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson, SYLVIE’S LOVE; MIB: INTERNATIONAL; THOR: RAGNAROK; the CREED films) is a middle-class mother of two boys who is married to Brian (André Holland, HIGH FLYING BIRD; MOONLIGHT; SELMA; TV’s THE KNICK), a doctor. She lives a comfortable life in Harlem and she happily volunteers her time organizing charity events for her community, rubbing shoulders with “woke” (for  the 1920s) white folk like Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp, NEWS OF THE WORLD; JOKER; VICE; RED SPARROW) who say they’re all for integration but perhaps really just see this as one giant social science experiment.  One day while out shopping in the city, Irene stops into a fancy hotel restaurant for some tea. Sitting at the next table is her old friend Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga, AD ASTRA; LOVING). Clare tells Irene that she has been “passing” for years now. She’s even fooled her white husband John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgård, GODZILLA VS. KONG; THE LEGEND OF TARZAN), who makes it no secret that he hates Negroes. As happy as Clare is, she misses her community and she begins to insinuate herself into Irene’s life forcing Irene to re-evaluate her own identity and what her responsibilities are as an African-American wife and mother in a country that is still savagely racist.

If you’re wondering why Hall, a very white British woman, would be drawn to a project like this, it’s because her own grandfather was African-American and he passed himself off as white for most of his life. Hall, who also wrote the screenplay based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larson (how have I never heard of this book?), wisely shot the film in black-and-white, providing ample atmosphere to evoke the period, and letting the camera linger on the faces of her two leads. It pushes us to wonder if we, too, could be fooled, showing us how passing was even possible. Hall challenges us to question our own biases and preconceptions of what a black person looks like.

Thomson and Negga are both fabulous here imparting their characters with a delicate balance of strength, insecurity, jealousy, femininity and sexuality. Even though the two characters live on opposite sides of the colour line, we see that they’re not so different. Both want acceptance and equality in a society that won’t allow them such luxuries, and each covets the freedom that the other one has. That freedom, however, comes at a cost.

PASSING is streaming now on Netflix.  It may just end up on my list of favourite films of 2021. Definitely check it out.

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review: Passing

  1. We saw Passing on Netflix, and found it heartbreakingly good. It’s worth the time to watch. Passing gives us a glimpse into racial tensions of which many may not have been aware.

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