Passing (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A reserved racial drama by Rebecca Hall

Netflix film “Passing”, which was released several weeks ago, somberly trembles below the surface as examining its two contrasting African American main characters and their racial issues. While it sometimes feels a bit too reserved for you if you expect something like, say, Douglas Sirk’s classic melodramatic “Imitation of Life” (1959), this graceful black and white period drama film still works as a dry but thoughtful character study thanks to its good direction and effective performances, and its main subject certainly feels relevant considering how much the racial prejudice against African Americans matters even in the 21st century.

The story, which is set in New York City in the 1920s, begins with the ongoing racial disguise of a young woman named Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson). Although she is biologically an African American, Irene can “pass” as a Caucasian due to her notably lighter skin color, and you will be amused a bit by how deftly she deceives Caucasian people around her as enjoying some white privilege during one afternoon. While we can clearly discern her obvious racial features on the screen, she disguises herself fairly well with her appropriate attire and attitude besides some confidence, and nobody looks at her twice as she enters some fancy hotel for having a little tea time for herself.

However, as Irene is idly looking around her surrounding space, somebody looks at her with considerable attention. That person in question is Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), and it soon turns out that she is an old friend of Irene. While both of them seem to be delighted to meet again, they are still careful because Clare is also passing as a Caucasian, and she has actually immersed herself in disguise much more than Irene. Since she left their Harlem neighborhood a long time ago, she has adapted herself to her fake racial identity, and her Caucasian husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), who is your typical racist as shown from the following scene, does not know anything about that at all.

Feeling quite uncomfortable during her time with Clare and her deplorable husband, Irene is relieved to return to her residence in Harlem, where she has led a fairly good life with her doctor husband Brian (André Holland) and their two kids. When Clare later sends a rather emotional letter, Irene is not particularly interested in getting in touch with Clare more, but then Clare eventually comes to Irene’s residence. Although she has enjoyed lots of white privileges, Clare apparently misses those good old time in Harlem, and Irene comes to let Clare accompany her and Brian when they go to a local dance party during one evening.

As watching her old friend showing more of her spirited side while being an African American for a while, Irene cannot help but envy how easily her friend goes back and forth between two different worlds without much trouble, and things become more complicated as Clare keeps coming into Irene’s life. Irene understands well how Clare often feels lonely, anxious, and conflicted as constantly maintaining her racial disguise, but she also finds herself jealous of her friend’s plucky personality and graceful sense of class, and she is not so pleased when she later discerns what is going on between Clare and Brian.

While there are considerable melodramatic aspects in the story itself, the screenplay by director/co-producer Rebecca Hall, which is based on Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 novel of the same name, still sticks to its reserved attitude as before as gradually conveying to us the emotional stakes for its two main characters. Even when the story later arrives at a certain key moment as expected, the movie steadily maintains its low-key tone while slowly increasing tension behind the screen, and that is why the following finale feels quite devastating despite some ambiguity on what exactly happens around that point.

Making this movie was a passion project for Hall for a long time because of her hidden family background (Her opera singer mother Maria Ewing was actually an African American), and Hall demonstrates here that she is a competent filmmaker who knows how to engage the audiences via mood and details. The cinematography by Eduard Grau, which is done in black and white film of 1.33:1 ratio, often gives us gorgeous visual moments to be savored, and the restrained score by Devonte Hynes subtly suggests the emotional undercurrents swirling around the two heroines of the film.

Under Hall’s skillful direction, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are engaging in the tentative interactions between their characters. While Thompson ably holds the ground for her co-star, Negga effortlessly glides into the screen every time, and we become more aware of their characters’ many differences along the story. In case of several other notable main cast members in the movie, André Holland and Alexander Skarsgård hold each own spot well around Thompson and Negga, and the special mention goes to Bill Camp, who has a few juicy moments as a sardonic Caucasian writer who often observes Harlem and its African American people with detached anthropological interest.

In conclusion, “Passing” is a solid feature film debut by Hall, who recently impressed us again with her excellent lead performance in “The Night House” (2020) in this year. While the overall result is rather modest, it has enough admirable elements besides another fabulous acting turn from Thompson and Negga, and it will be interesting to see what Hall will make next after this interesting drama film.

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