- Movie Rating -

Passing (2021)

| November 14, 2021

If we think now of the new visibility sprung from outward protests like Black Lives Matter and #oscarssowhite, it may be important to note that it is really nothing new.  Back in the 1920s, there was a rising visibility that came from the Harlem Renaissance in all manner of artistic expression, most notably “New Negro” writers like Alaine LeRoy Locke, Langdon Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and a Chicago native who wanted to be part of that illustrious group, Nella Larson who wrote two seminal works that would be her legacy. 

First was “Quicksand,” published in 1928, an autobiographical chronicle about the dizzying carousel of trying to live as a mixed-race woman.  The other was “Passing,” published in 1929, as the renaissance was coming to a close, which was a complex examination of the act of passing for white at a moment when segregation was the law of the land both legally and socially.  The book came out of the 1920s at the time of the Harlem Renaissance.  Rebecca Hall’s film version comes from the New Visibility, possibly proving that times have changed but the struggle never ends.

Passing is Hall’s directorial debut, and it shows that she not only understands the language of film but understands the quiet and often difficult spaces of Larson’s work.  Plus, the material is not outside of her understanding – she comes from a mixed-race background.  What emerges in her work is that she is patient, observant.  She resists the temptation to make the work hammy or to give it a broad stroke of speeches or dramatic highpoints.  What works best are the moments when we simply observe and listen when things aren’t being said.

The film is shot in beautiful black and white by Eduard Grau, and that may seem like a gimmick, but it really gives the material a sense of heightened awareness.  It is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio that better confines the characters within the frame.  Wider shots would have lessened the impact of the close-ups and the drama.  Hall has also removed a lot of the book’s flashback structures and given the story a narrower sense of purpose.

The film begins with Irene “Rene” Redfield (Tessa Thompson) who winds her way through 1920s New York on a sweltering summer day.  Wearing a hat the covers her eyes but obviously can’t obscure her clearly non-Caucasian lips and nose, she navigates shops and streets where a black woman might routinely be shooed away like a ragged cat.  The word for this scene is “delicate” and that’s how she winds in and out of the throng of whites who apparently pay her so little attention that they hardly notice – she’s dressed in white but others are oblivious.

Stopping into a local hotel to get some tea and to escape the brutal heat, she is noticed by a white woman sitting a few tables away.  The woman says nothing for a long time and we become nervous about what signal she might be picking up.  The woman is Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), a childhood friend of Rene who hasn’t seen her in 12 years.  Clare is not white, but bi-racial.  She has abandoned Harlem is now married to a Class-A racist and has even born him a daughter who is white.  Clare is passing for white, and her husband John’s attitude about this is, to say the least, cringe-worthy (I had a difficult time getting through his scene).

Our focus on this story is really on Rene, but the dramatic focus remains on Clare who has abandoned her mixed-race identity and who seems to wander through a land of confusion.  She says that she’s happy with John but her constant reappearance in Rene’s life says otherwise.  She wants to talk about it, she wants to share something, wants to find out who she really is in a body that straddles the line between races in a time of harsh racial division.  Who is Clare?  Where does she belong socially?

The dramatic tension of Passing doesn’t reside in over-riding speeches and moments.  It stands in looks and words and quiet stillness.  This was a time when the racial question wasn’t on the table, but the racial positioning was.  It was accepted that blacks stayed on one side and whites on the other.  But what of a mixed-race woman?  It would have been very easy for Hall to prop this us on a white person’s point of view, but seeing it through Rene’s eyes gives us a unique perspective.  Both women are bi-racial but each have made different choices.  Rene lives in Harlem and is married to a black man who is dedicated to teaching their children about the realities of the racial problem despite Rene’s objections.

Passing offers a lot of perspectives, a lot of questions, a lot of issues waiting to be discussed.  It evokes W.E.B. Debois 1910 statement that the focus of the 20th century would be on the color line (every decade since proved him right) but what happens when people refuse to keep to that color line?  What does it do to people psychologically?  That’s the great strength of Passing, but I wish there weren’t so much to take in.  I was intrigued by the film’s first hour but I think it falls short in the third act as we wait for something to be said that can tie all this together.  It is a good film with good performances, but dramatically I felt it coming up short.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Drama