As a person currently on the internet, and someone who has presumably been on it at some point in the past week, you’re probably aware that America has somewhat of a racism problem.
In Passing, Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut based on a Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, we see just how tenuous the idea of race has always been, even in a country defined by it. The term ‘passing’ refers to black people who portrayed themselves as white to make their lives easier, and the film spends just over a ninety minutes exploring the intricacies, horrors, and overhanging dread that comes along with trying to hide in plain sight in this way, as well as the joy of embracing black identity – even in a place as racist as 1920’s America.
It’s a beautifully constructed movie, although at times to the point of being overwrought. The use of music is clever, and the fact it’s shot in black and white is an interesting, albeit obvious, directorial ploy. While the plot has a sense of inertness to it, the themes are handled with great sensitivity, and the acting is top-notch.
Set in 1920’s New York, after the tiniest bit of hope granted by the reconstruction period had been duly crushed by the country’s white supremacist tendencies, and the KKK was hoovering up members all over the country, we begin with our protagonist Reenie (Tessa Thompson). The tension is ratcheted up in a discomforting opening fifteen-or-so minutes, where we’re unsure if Reenie is trying to ‘pass’, or simply make herself as unobtrusive as possible to avoid the ignominy that comes with being black in 1920s America.
We’re then introduced to Clare (Ruth Negga), a former friend of Reenie’s from Chicago, and a woman who is very much passing. She’s married to an almost comically racist, wealthy businessman named John (Alexander Skarsgård) and has been living the high life – to an extent. The unexpected reunion leads Clare to reconsider her choices, and as the film unfolds we see her attempts to traverse her old life and a new one, where she is once again involved in the black community.
Passing gets better as it goes along, with Hall able to explore many facets of racial identity in a uniquely sensitive way. The script is a bit hammy at points, with Clare and Reenie’s initial interactions taking place in a near parodical mid-Atlantic cadence. However, as we’ve seen plenty of times before, when it comes to racism in America a lot of people need these things spelled out, so it’s easy to see why the dialogue is often lacking in nuance.
From a purely entertainment and plot perspective Passing has a few drawbacks, but in terms of the message and artfulness of the direction, as well as the acting, it’s a good movie. When it comes down to it, the worst thing about the film is the fact it’s still relevant today, instead of being a reminder of America’s horrific past – and that itself makes it worth the watch.
Sandeep is a writer based in London. He recently completed his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh and was longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2021. He loves all kinds of beer, from cheap lagers to stouts so dark they would fight for Sauron.