‘Passing’ movie review: A gossamer treatment of tough, everlasting questions

Rebecca Hall creates a wonderful snapshot of 1920s New York, and also deftly tackle questions of gender, motherhood and more

While at first glance, Rebecca Hall’s delicately-put together directorial debut, Passing, looks like it is only about race, the second and third looks reveal it to deftly tackle questions of gender, motherhood, identity, class, sexuality and spousal jealousy.

Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 book, Passing, the film tells the story of two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) who knew each other in school but lost touch as they grew up. When Irene runs into Clare at an upscale hotel in New York, a Pandora’s Box is unpacked. In the reluctant and prickly relationship between the two women, a bunch of issues come up for scrutiny. Though both Irene and Clare are light-skinned African-Americans, Irene identifies as African-American, marries black doctor Brian (André Holland) and lives in Harlem, while Clare ‘passes’ as white having married a white man, John (Alexander Skarsgård).

Though Irene can be perceived as being moral and upright and Clare as being shallow, things are not so simple. Irene is jealous of Clare’s vivacity and what she perceives as Brian and her children’s fascination for Clare. While all for equality among races, Irene has an African-American maid, Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins), who she treats with equal measures of condescension and impatience.

Passing

  • Director: Rebecca Hall
  • Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alexander Skarsgård
  • Storyline: In 1920s New York, a chance meeting with a childhood friend turns a woman’s life upside down
  • Run time: 99 minutes

The two women look at motherhood in diametrically opposite ways. For Irene, her sons are her joy and pride, while though Clare loves her daughter to distraction, she is not willing to repeat the tension of the nine months of confinement over the skin tone of her baby. “Being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world,” for Clare. Irene, while being a dedicated mum, has arguments with Brian on how much the boys should know about racial oppression in the United States.

When Clare misses aspects of her heritage, she attends the dances Irene organises. These lively dances with smooth jazz notes from horn and piano, also attract whites looking for exoticism, a whiff of danger or difference, or fodder for their imaginations, like the bestselling author Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp).

Hall, who has also written the screenplay, has created a wonderful snapshot of 1920s New York that is of its time and of all time. The black-and-white cinematography contributes to the fluidity of time and space. Wonderfully acted (Skarsgård is making a habit of playing abusive husbands) and produced, Passing is gossamer treatment of tough, everlasting, ever-present questions. Like Irene so rightly says, “We are all of us passing for something or other.”

Passing is currently streaming on Netflix

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