Written by: Rebecca Hall
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Elements of identity go much deeper than what sits on the outside but most of the time it dictates the major conversations in society. From areas like race and ethnicity, especially in more overtly racist times, it meant the difference between where one could even navigate. Passing tries to thread the needle of this issue with quite the intriguing look of how it impacts two women and despite feeling fairly dry at times, its story does well enough, especially when presenting two fascinating performances.
At times navigating white spaces by passing as caucasian, Irene (Tessa Thompson) meets up with her former friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who fully has used her lighter complexion to present herself as a white woman. As Clare tries to navigate back into the world where Irene operates, a sense of jealousy and uncomfortableness begins to simmer from Irene towards the aforementioned woman.
The intricacies interweaved in Passing make for a tricky discussion because it deals with racism in the form of how Irene and her family deal with it but also the sense of lightness of skin, which continues to be a discussion in many marginalized identities. The closer one’s complexion reaches whiteness, they can get closer to the advantages afforded to the most privileged class. Hell, if you’re light enough you can even pass as one, which Irene does on occasion and Clare has elected to do permanently. Truly an intriguing topic to take on and the level of nuance ensures it will not vibe with everyone.
Presented with black and white cinematography, this very intentional choice only further goes along with the moral gray areas involved with passing and what it means when Clare believes she can so easily navigate between the two worlds. Sure, Irene uses it on occasion when she needs to purchase some expensive toys for her son, but Clare lives married to a man who has no qualms about sharing his racist beliefs about Black folks. This makes Clare such a fascinating character to follow, as the way she justified her decisions at times feels mystifying but Ruth Negga brings such an allure to the character that we need to know more. Of course, with the perspective of the film coming mainly through Irene, this also means the intrigue comes from the protagonist as well.
As much as this feature tackles the ideas of skin complexion, it also serves as an introspection of Irene and how she finds herself on the verge of breaking down. This coincides with Clare, sure, but it culminates with the fact that her blackness has never more been made more apparent even with her living a comfortable lifestyle. The life Irene lives does not come with many issues as she has her two boys and a doctor husband who does more than enough to provide for the family and then some. With her complexion giving her the ability to pass as white, she has pretty much skirted moments of outward racial abuse but this does not get afforded to her sons of a darker skin tone. Nearly echoing in the background are major events of racial violence Irene hopes to shield her sons from, which her husband Brian (André Holland) disagrees with because he knows they must be prepared. It makes for the further degradation of Irene’s mental state, as it all becomes too much to handle at once.
Very much a two-hander, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga both dazzle in their roles. As mentioned before, Negga captures the alluring nature of Clare where she contains this supreme confidence Irene cannot fully comprehend. Clare captures this ability to just shake things off and fully embrace both her blackness and the capability to pass that becomes almost strange, especially to Irene. However, Thompson carries the anguish of this character as the more time she spends with Clare the more insecure she feels in her once-cozy situation. Thompson gets tasked with plenty of internal work and handles it all exceptionally well.
Working also as Rebecca Hall’s directorial feature debut, Passing has so much to navigate but does so with a level of nuance respectful of the women and the conflicting thoughts in their heads. It moves fairly slowly through an already short runtime but the potency of its story certainly cannot be denied. An impressive start to Hall’s directorial career and one with such strong visuals to pair with the sharp script to have this larger impactful discussion.