Rebecca Hall’s brilliant adaptation of ‘Passing’ is a haunting reflection of identity

'Passing' premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

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In 2018, Rebecca Hall made headlines announcing her directorial debut of Passing, the film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s seminal novella of the same name.

Passing has been widely revered in the Black community since its 1929 publication, and needless to say, people had some criticism about what was perceived to be yet another white filmmaker helming a Black story. There’s never really a question of if one can handle the material well; it’s whether they should.

But Hall is a rare example of an artist who did the narrative justice. That’s because it is, in part, her story to tell.  

Read More: 51 percent of 2021 Sundance Film Festival selections from artists of color

In an early moment from Passing, Irene (Tessa Thompson), a light-skinned Black woman, finds herself seated at an upscale hotel in a racially segregated New York City in the 1920s. Donning a pretty dress, heels, and a hat with a slight veil, she had just managed to make a purchase at a nearby shop with nary a white person bothering her. She then decides to press her luck that patrons of the next fine establishment won’t detect her race either. 

But comfort for Irene within that space is largely unattainable as she fidgets in her chair, eyes flitting left to right, fearing the worst might occur. It creates a sense of nervousness for the viewers that recognize what’s at stake here. Luckily, nothing bad happens, though.

Instead, Irene bumps into a remotely familiar face—Clare (Ruth Negga), a fair-skinned Black woman like her but barely discernible to her old friend. 

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in Passing by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau.

Unlike Irene, Clare shows no signs of anxiety about her surroundings. She’s been passing for white, has a white husband (Alexander Skarsgård), and shed obvious traits of her racial identity even from her oblivious spouse. With confidence, Clare struts up to Irene’s table as the latter attempts to squirm away and says, “I think I know you.” After a few seconds of confusion, a difficult kinship reemerges.   

It’s a brief but pivotal scene that reignites a reimagined relationship between the two women in Hall’s remarkably delicate adaptation that is a thoughtful meditation on friendship as well as identity—racial, sexual, and otherwise. It’s a story that asks questions like: Who are we when we begin to define ourselves only as others see us? That’s a query to which Hall, who also wrote the screenplay, might be able to relate. 

“I recognized these women,” Hall told the Los Angeles Times. “I understood them.”

That intimacy may come from the fact that, like her fictional protagonists, Hall has long presented as a white British actress in Hollywood for years, known for her exceptional work in films like The Town and Christine. And in 2010, when The Guardian asked her if she identified as Black, she reportedly said, “No, you could not get more white and middle class and English than me.”

But she is the daughter of opera singer Maria Ewing—who is of Dutch, Native American Sioux Indian, African American, and Scottish descent—and white English theater director Peter Hall. And she’s always been clear on that.  

Eleven years since that Guardian interview, Hall seems to be in a more reflective space with her latest film. Passing is at once a deeper exploration of elements that could have led to Hall’s sense of identity, and that of those on her maternal side that “have been passing for generations.” For example, what are the lies we feel we have to tell ourselves just to get by? 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Premiere - 74th Venice Film Festival
Jury member Rebecca Hall walks the red carpet ahead of the ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ screening during the 74th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on September 4, 2017 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

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Choosing to film in black and white, Hall poses that question to her audience as she immerses us in Jim Crow Manhattan—bright, sunny, full of opportunity for those that are allowed. Hall’s precise intention to detail is evident in Passing’s opening scenes with the language, set design, and style.

There’s immediate attention paid to Marci Rodgers’ pristine costumes that emphasize Irene and Clare’s desires to fit in. Never do they leave their homes with a hair or thread out of place, their hands are always covered with sleek gloves and shoes perfectly polished. It’s like their armor, what keeps them in constant disguise, even if Irene can’t admit it. Following the jolt of her and Clare’s reunion and the latter’s persistent friendship, that becomes even more apparent. 

Leaving an unbearable encounter with Clare and her racist husband (who affectionately calls her “Nig” for short because of what he perceives as her unusual skin color), Irene returns to her cold and quiet Harlem home that she shares with her affluent Black husband, Brian (André Holland) and two sons. While she turns her nose up at Clare’s decision to pass, Irene isn’t so quick to realize that she is also pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. She’s an unhappy wife pretending to be content in a marriage that only functions as a way to give her proximity to whiteness because of financial privilege. 

Irene is so removed from the experience of being Black that she refuses to allow any mention of race in her own home, much to her husband’s frustration. It’s not until she’s at a party filled with presumably like-minded imitators, she finally says, “We’re all passing for something or other. Aren’t we?”

Thompson’s beautifully complex performance is matched by Negga’s that is both fearless and vulnerable. Irene and Clare are at once foils of each other yet jealous of what each can do with the identity they chose, as punctuated by a scene with Clare wistful for the sweet sound of jazz while on one of many visits to Harlem. Or when Irene silently marvels at the ease with which Clare can move between downtown and Harlem.

It all leads to a shocking and devastating conclusion but with gentle compassion, Hall captures the isolation, admiration, and quiet desperation between the women in a sophisticated story that still resonates nearly a century after it was first told.

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