The Reel Review
An unexpected reunion of two financially well-to-do, mixed-race women living in a pre-Depression era, 1929 New York City disrupts both of their lives, when Clare (Ruth Negga), who lives as a white woman, inserts herself into the life of Irene (Tessa Thompson), who lives as a black woman. The Netflix period drama is based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella.
Passing is the screenwriting and directorial debut for Rebecca Hall, whose acting credits include The Night House, Christine and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Filmed in black and white, in the boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio used during that era, Hall’s beautifully nuanced film is loaded with symbolism and restraint as it captures both the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices of the era. Her clever camerawork and the sexual innuendo exhibited by Thompson’s character also hints that Irene may herself be passing… for straight.
Negga and Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok, Annihilation), who both served as executive producers of the film, give powerhouse performances, with Alexander Skarsgård, André Holland (Moonlight) and Bill Camp (Dark Waters) in supporting roles as Clare’s clueless and wildly-racist husband, Irene’s husband who is drawn to the blonde-haired Clare, and Irene’s society friend. Despite some very slow pacing and a tediously repetitive piano score, Passing still passes as an impressive debut from Hall.
• Rebecca Hall has personal experience with the subject matter in Passing. Her mother, opera singer Maria Ewing, is biracial and for most of her life, passed for white. Rebecca says her mother has described the film as a late-in-life gift to her.
• Ruth Negga and Bill Camp also both appeared in the 2016 drama Loving, about the couple behind the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision that ended the U.S. ban on interracial marriage.
• Rebecca Hall’s screenplay for Passing sat in a drawer for six years as she grappled with how to turn it into a movie and then another seven years in financing and production.