Passing, Rebecca Hall’s debut film as a writer-director, is a studied adaptation of Nellallitea “Nella” Larsen’s eponymous 1929 novel set in Harlem, New York. The story is spare—two biracial childhood friends, Irene and Clare, who have not seen each other in over a decade, meet by chance and renew their relationship. While Irene is content with her family, her husband Brian and their two sons, Clare is “passing,” married to a white man who believes his wife is white. Like the novel, Hall’s narrative unfolds from Irene’s point-of-view.
Larsen’s story consists mostly of Irene’s thoughts, and her wavering emotions toward Clare who quickly insinuates herself into Irene’s (Tessa Thompson) cultured circle of friends. It is the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and Clare (Academy Award nominee Ruth Negga), whose beauty makes her a welcome guest at parties, is eager to mingle with other “negroes.” What is immediately apparent during the women’s first meeting at a Chicago hotel is Hall’s skill at directing actors. Irene, who is seated at a table, realizes the white woman across the room is staring at her. Irene’s anxiety mounts long enough for viewers to feel it before Clare stands and walks toward the table to introduce herself. There is just the right amount of awkwardness when Irene fails to recognize Clare, and in Irene a touch of reluctance as she recalls Clare as a girl. Unfortunately, Hall’s screenplay rarely repeats the intimacy of that scene.
Hall’s Passing depicts many of the difficult circumstances that African-Americans then encountered in public places, and the pressure that racial prejudice brought to bear on their marriages and friendships. Larsen brilliantly articulates these situations that persist to this day; few mainstream readers in 1929 were aware of them, and some modern audiences may be surprised at their complexity. Hall is deserving of praise for tackling Larsen’s subtle and intricate novel that addresses, among many other issues, Irene’s relationship to her white friends and acquaintances who visit the popular Harlem clubs, and who donate to Black causes. The movie also briefly touches upon the delicate matter in the book of how Black upper-class women grappled with their Black housemaids and cooks.
Despite its depiction of African-American family life through Irene’s knowing gaze, Passing is a period film, rather than an adaptation of Larsen’s contemplation of race: it is replete with beautiful costumes and historically correct production design, down to the needle-etched glassware on Irene’s dinner table. It revels in a class of African-Americans not often depicted in American film, and two female characters whose lives should resonate with modern movie audiences, if only for Larsen’s conscious depictions of the intersection of race, class and gender. Although Hall’s screenplay meticulously recreates scenes from the novel, it elides Irene’s vivid interior monologue, draining the narrative of much of its emotion.
Hall shot the film in black and white for reasons that are not apparent—a metaphor for the racial divide would be too obvious, although she continually fades to white, sometimes accompanied by a loud piano riff that adds an odd theatrical feel to the film. Passing is shot in Academy ratio that results in a nearly square frame, perhaps to emphasize characterization in the manner of Hollywood films, and to highlight the limitations Irene and Clare confront despite their affluent circumstances. In the first scene, Irene is shopping downtown, outside of Harlem, surrounded by white clerks and customers; several times, she nervously adjusts her wide-brimmed hat to hide her face. While the box frame highlights her discomfort, the writer-director’s stylistic choices for the movie mostly anchor it in an historical moment, undermining its timeless narrative.
Enamored with the segment of society that she is now a member of, as a younger woman, Clare married a banker. After reuniting with Irene, she realizes that these years spent forfeiting her true identity leaves her longing to regain it. What outsider to mainstream, white society has not experienced this conflict? In the abstract, viewers may connect the trajectory of Clare’s life to those of Black and Latino superstars who have a racial awakening, or those for whom the struggle to regain their identity proves to be too much to bear, yet Clare remains strangely inaccessible. Literally and metaphorically bereft of color, there is little left in Hall’s Clare of the impoverished daughter of an alcoholic janitor so that the audience may understand the magnitude of her suffering and what Irene in the book calls her “having ways.”
Many of Irene’s sharp ruminations of her own shortcomings in the novel are a contrast to her outward contentment, and while some are included as dialogue in the film, Hall apparently felt the acting would fill in that gap. It does not, despite solid performances from Thompson and Negga. Devoid of Irene’s thoughts, the characters have no history. Larsen’s novel centers on Irene’s initial repugnance toward Clare’s racial disguise, and her later feelings of solidarity with her friend, even while wondering why she flirts with danger—at any moment, Clare’s husband could discover her roots. While these aspects of the women’s relationship are depicted in Passing, the deeper inferences of Clare’s self-hatred and of what in the book Irene calls her “soft malice” are not, eclipsing the deeper issue of race at play in both the friendship, and in Clare’s fate.
Far too many times, Hall has Irene gazing at her reflection in the mirror of her vanity, and Clare fretting over the impression she makes, but that, along with the shadowy, period interiors representing concealed and recondite perils, is not enough to build tension or to sustain a story when audiences are nearly a century removed from the setting. No doubt, some viewers of color will feel they are represented by Hall who is British and biracial, her family having “passed” for three generations, but for most audiences, the film will feel less relevant than it should.
This review is from the New York Film Festival. Netflix will release Passing in select theaters October 27 and on the streamer November 10.