Director: Rebecca Hall
Writer: Rebecca Hall
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Ashly Ware Jenkins, and Alexander Skarsgård
After being warmly received at Sundance and London Film Festival, Passing has been released on Netflix. The story is a period drama about race relations in America in the 1920s and is based on a book by Nella Larsen from 1929. It’s a story that is sadly still relevant in 2021.
Irene (Tessa Thompson) runs into an old friend from school, Clare (Ruth Negga). While they are both black women, they have pale enough skin that they can pass as white. Irene uses this to shop in white-only shops or drink tea at nice cafes, Clare goes further and is married to John (Alexander Skarsgård), a wealthy and bigoted man. The differences in their lives shocks Irene and Clare sees a way to reconnect with who she really is and starts to push herself into Irene’s personal life.
While the film is set when the book was written, almost a hundred years ago, the story still feels very relevant. It’s genuinely sad that people feel the need to hide who they are to avoid any judgement. At first that is what Passing is dealing with, the rampant racism in America at the time and how people had to survive through it. There’s a dark moment where Irene’s husband is trying to warn his children about the horrors that happen to black people, like lynching. He feels that he has to warn them of the dangers, based purely because of how they look.
Another shocking moment comes very early in the film when Irene meets John, who has no idea of his own wife’s past and family. He throws casual racism about as if it’s meaningless. Alexander Skarsgård is really well cast as John, he’s capable of being so charming that when he turns nasty you don’t really see it coming. It’s similar to the abusive character he played in the first season of Big Little Lies.
There is a darker layer to the film that is slowly revealed. Clare starts to envy Irene’s life and starts to try and take over. She becomes friends with Irene’s friends, starts to get a little too friendly with her husband and invites herself to events. There’s a moment where she ominously warns Irene by saying that whatever happens, she’s still grateful for Irene. That’s the main driving force behind the plot. It’s an unsettling feeling that builds throughout until its inevitable tragic ending.
The film is shot in black and white, adding a colour-blind veil to everything, and is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio. It makes it feel like a classic film from the time. At the same time it reinforces how relevant the theme of race relations are at the moment, in that as far as we’ve come there’s still a way to go. The piano-based score from Dev Hynes is gorgeous and really feels like it comes from the era the film is set in.
Passing is an interesting and thought provoking film. It’s a slow-burn drama that really hooks you, but it just feels like there’s not enough. There is a lot more room to really get into the plot that isn’t fully explored. Without giving spoilers there are moments where it feels like it’s jumped forward and we’re missing something. It’s a shame, because it does undercut the powerful message underneath. It is still a good film and worth more of your time than a lot of the rubbish that Netflix releases weekly.
Liked my review? Please subscribe below to never miss a post: