‘Passing’: Don’t pass on experiencing this delicate, complex friendship

“Passing” (2021) – Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) were high school friends.  Not close comrades, but dear enough to actively reach out if a future encounter ever occurs.

At least 12 years after school, that day arrives for the two ladies during an ordinary afternoon at The Drayton Hotel, an upscale spot in New York City.  Irene and Clare both sit alone at small, circular tables with white linen covers, and bright daylight illuminates every inch of a large, open sunroom with 30-foot high ceilings.  They catch each other’s eye, which is more difficult for Clare because Irene dons a cloche hat with an extended brim and frequently looks downward. 

She acts like a foreign spy on a secret mission and does not wish to be recognized.  Conversely, Clare places herself wide-open in plain sight, stares at her old friend, tries to place her for several seconds, perhaps 10, and then confidently stands up and approaches her. 

Nervously, Irene feels discovered and looks to scramble for an exit when Clare says, “Pardon me.  I don’t mean to stare, but I think I know you.” 

Clare (Ruth Negga)

Their accidental meeting turns friendly, but Irene’s mind races with disbelief.  The setting is sometime during the 1920s, and ordinarily, the two women wouldn’t be welcome at The Drayton because they are Black.  However, they are passing as white.  Irene is discreet and traveling incognito, while Clare openly flaunts her whole person without a disguise or reservation.  Her complexion is light, and she has blonde hair.  Clare appears white, even to her husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), a racist who unequivocally believes that she is Caucasian. 

This is the opening to Rebecca Hall’s first movie, and she wrote and directed “Passing”, based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name.  This story is particularly personal to Hall because she has explored her racial identity. 

During an Oct. 27, 2021 Film Independent Q&A with Thompson and Negga, Hall explained conversations with her mother. 

“She would say, ‘It’s possible that we’re black.  It’s possible that we’re Native American.  I don’t really know,’” Hall says.

Hall adds, “I found myself in situations – specifically in America, actually, for what it’s worth – sitting in rooms where people made assumptions about what I am, based on what they’re seeing.  I found myself increasingly not being comfortable with that and sort of sticking out my hand and awkwardly saying, ‘I think I might be mixed-race.’  Someone handed me this book and said, ‘This is going to help with what you’re trying to articulate.’  And I looked at the book and thought, ‘Passing?  What does that mean?’”

Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau’s present their film in a rich, nostalgic black and white.  Striking lighting and shadows contrast in various settings – like in the aforementioned hotel, quiet moments at Irene and her husband’s (Andre Holland) home, and snow blanketing a concrete courtyard – and they take on symbolism.  On the other hand, perhaps I am reading too much into these black, white, and gray backdrops. Maybe those double meanings don’t exist, but the exploration of race and identity seems ever-present throughout the 94-minute runtime.

The movie’s most dramatic and heightened moments – when our eyes widen and ears perk – occur during all the precious seconds when Clare appears on-screen.  Irene frequently attempts to learn more about Clare’s emotional makeup but can’t quite get there.  Clare is a mystery.  Irene wonders how Clare can freely and willingly pass as a white woman 24/7 for weeks, months, and years on end, and especially when her husband, the father of her daughter, is a bigot.  It’s a betrayal.

Clare (Ruth Negga) and John (Alexander Skarsgard)

Still, Clare was her friend so many years ago, and she’s congenial and pleasant to everyone in Irene’s world today, even though Brian (Holland) recognizes her invented drama and social duplicity. 

Hall and Negga don’t just portray Clare as a mystery.  She’s a recurring recollection of sorts.  After a lengthy, opening set piece at the Drayton, Hall’s screenplay hops through time.  One minute, Clare lives in Chicago, and in the next scene, Irene and Brian discuss that she’s settled in New York City.  Soon after, she and her family reside in Switzerland.

It’s almost as if “Passing” is a collection of memories, and the black and white celluloid canvas and accompanying, singular piano score add to this dreamlike time warp.  However, don’t mistake a dream with haze or fog because the gorgeously filmed and haunting images lay across our senses and settle into permanent recall. 

Brian (Andre Holland) and Irene (Tessa Thompson)

Even though race relations and societal conflicts are at the heart of the picture, the film only includes two brief scenes of ugly racially-motivated confrontations.  So, the movie doesn’t delve into 90 minutes of on-screen cruelty, but Irene and Brian often discuss their divided nation, as mentions of lynchings and hostile monikers fill some spaces while Clare is off-camera. 

Although Irene lives a comfortable lifestyle – due to Brian’s vocation as a doctor – she and her family don’t have the same advantages as their white counterparts.  This triggers conflicting feelings about Clare, the most prominent constant in “Passing”, as Thompson and Negga deliver standout performances depicting this delicate, complex friendship.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Written and directed by: Rebecca Hall

Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, and Bill Camp

Rated: PG-13

Runtime: 94 minutes

Image credits: 94 minutes

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