Black and white films have been making something of a comeback recently – even just looking at Netflix – there has been Roma (2018), Mank (2020), The Forty Year Old Version (2020) and Malcolm & Marie (2021). Elsewhere, we’ve had Beats (2019), Bait (2019), The Lighthouse (2019), Cold War (2018), The Wild Boys (2017), The Party (2017) and at this year’s Sundance, there was The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet. Usually, the black and white photography seems to be serving a purely aesthetic purpose, but with actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, Passing – there is surely a thematic reason as well.
For this is a film about what it means to be Black and to be white, in this case in 1920s New York. The film would have been more explicit in conveying colourism if it were in colour, but Hall has not taken the most obvious or easiest route in many aspects of her filmmaking. Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen and adapted by Hall herself, like many first projects, Passing is a labour-of-love that she has been trying to bring to the screen for years. Hall’s maternal grandfather is of both Native American and African-American descent, so she has some connection to the material, but obviously is not in a similar position to the characters.
The film opens with Irene/Reenie (Tessa Thompson) shopping and stopping for tea in an upmarket part of Manhattan, and feeling tense because she is surrounded by white people who may not take kindly to having a Black woman amongst them. Based on her fancy clothes and her hat pulled low over her face, she could pass as one of them, if she’s careful… The tight aspect ratio (1.33: 1) and the heightened sound design combine to emphasise Reenie’s claustrophobia and paranoia, on this hot summer-in-the-city day. While waiting a seeming eternity to be served tea in a posh hotel, she bumps into a friend from her childhood and adolescence in Chicago – Clare (Ruth Negga). Reenie barely recognises her – with her blonde hair and thick make up – and it is revealed that she is married to John (Alexander Skarsgard), who doesn’t know that Clare is Black. Clare insists that Reenie come up to her hotel room to meet her husband and an unbearably tense scene unfolds.
This opening is so strong, that the rest of the film unfortunately cannot really sustain the same level, with it somewhat sagging in the middle before a high-drama finale. Reenie is married to a doctor, Brian (the wonderful André Holland), they live in a large home in Harlem with their two sons and they have a housemaid. Despite the comfort of their surroundings, Brian is very much aware of how Black people are being treated in the South and he makes his sons aware of lynchings and other racist violence in the newspapers. He feels so strongly about it, that he wants his family to emigrate. Despite the fact that Reenie volunteers for a charitable organisation called the Negro Welfare League, she isn’t as politically aware as Brian and wants to protect their sons from such news.
Clare comes into this family, like a whirling dervish, becoming something of a third wheel within the marriage (she has sexual tension with both Brian and Reenie at different points), as well as being a fun Auntie to the boys. Clare seems to have a desire to reconnect with her past and roots and escape “this pale life of mine.” While Negga has the “showier” role, Thompson has never been so impressive. Thompson uses her voice brilliantly here and Holland uses his big eyes and tense mouth to effectively convey Brian’s exasperation with Reenie. Both Negga and Thompson, with their accents and style of acting, fit into the 1920s cinematic world that Hall has created. She is very much trying to make something that isn’t just about this time, but feels very much of its time. The melodramatic ending very much fits this style (it feels extremely F. Scott Fitzgerald), while still being quite jarring after what has proceeded it.
One interesting relationship that could have been explored more is Reenie’s with Hugh Wentworth (played by Bill Camp – and who doesn’t want more Camp in a movie?), who is heavily involved with the Negro League. There is an electric scene at a charity dance, where colourism is discussed and sparks fly with everyone Clare encounters. The film certainly has peaks and troughs, with structure and pacing perhaps being areas that could have been improved.
We never see Clare in her own home – in her role as a wife and mother – which certainly feels like a missed opportunity, especially as we could have seen her code-switching – acting as a “white woman,” as opposed to when she’s surrounded by Black people. You are left with the impression that, despite the title, passing isn’t the central focus – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but comes as something of a surprise. Despite the flaws, you can feel the blood, sweat and tears that Hall and the actors have poured into Passing and while uneven, it is an ambitious debut that mostly achieves what it sets out to do. It’s particularly exciting to see Thompson in such a challenging central role, here’s hoping she has many more.