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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Passing (2021)

Rebecca Hall is an actress of considerable talent, someone who has consistently held scenes and films together with ease (this year's The Night House is a prime example of that). But I don’t think any of us could’ve foreseen her talents behind the camera as both a screenwriter and director of truly immeasurable talent. Adapted from the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Passing takes place mostly in Harlem where Irene (Tessa Thompson) reunites with childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who is now passing as a white woman. It’s a sensitive story of race and identity that could've been mishandled by any filmmaker, let alone a first-timer, but thanks to Rebecca Hall’s deeply personal connection with the story and its characters, she handles it with a heightened level of sincerity that you’d only expect from the most experienced and instinctive of veteran filmmakers.

Upon first glance, and knowing nothing of Rebecca Hall’s background, you’d assume she was white. I'm guilty of that assumption as I thought the same. And like many other writers unaware of her history, I was hesitant about a white person would be directing a film about racial identity involving two black women. But like all those other writers, I was guilty of jumping to conclusions without knowing the full story. Watching interviews and reading into her complicated family history, Rebecca Hall (only in the last ten years or so), discovered that her maternal grandfather’s side of the family was an African American living in America passing as a white man. Hall is quick to acknowledge that she has never experienced the same struggles as other black people because she appears as white, but this is what drew her deeper into needing to make this film and why it feels so natural that she is the ideal candidate to make Passing. Also, add in the fact that she has been trying to get this made for over a decade. It’s important to note that Hall doesn’t judge those who would take advantage of their lighter skin tone, and coming from a background of "more" privilege, she strives to understand why one would do so as they look to escape from the injustices and hatred minority groups face on a day-to-day basis.

Once again, this is why Passing feels so personal to its writer and director. Rebecca Hall is (as she puts it herself), a walking example of the sociological term of passing, and even though she was completely unaware of it affecting her since birth, she understands how it has benefitted her unintentionally. And although she has only very recently learned of its practice within her family history, it’s so intrinsically personal to her. We feel it through the text and performances as she ushers us through the experiences of these characters in a time period that could easily be set today, touching on key themes of identity and racism.

The opening scenes of Passing have both Irene and Clare posing as white women in a white part of New York as those around them are completely unaware of their actual race. Once they see each other and reunite, Clare introduces Irene to her white husband (Alexander Skarsgård), a racist man who is unaware of his marriage to a black woman. It’s in these moments where we see Passing truly show us the nature of this practice as these two women are left alone to do what they want without the harassment and gawking eyes of those around them. What would seem as a once-in-a-while expedition of passing for Irene in the beneficial world of being white, Clare has completely assimilated herself within white culture. Her husband even boasts about how she hates black people more than he does. This scene between the three is easily one of the most frightening instances of how the act of passing can work from person to person as they take advantage of what they have in order to survive a hostile world against anyone non-white.

Racial identity is the key focal point of Passing, but Rebecca Hall manages to stretch beyond race and into other important topics like class and even sexual identity that lets Passing speak on multiple levels and relate to even wider audiences. The act of passing is to hide in plain sight that doesn’t just limit one to race, but also that of sexual orientation, gender, class, religion, etc. People who can effectively “pass” allow for themselves to reap the benefits that playing it white, straight, male or wealthy may give them. “We’re all passing as something or other”, Irene says to her friend who could possibly be passing as straight in a hetero-dominated world. It’s an effective line coming from Irene as it adds an extra layer to the complexities of her character, but it also allows for Hall to let each one of its viewers in, regardless of background in trying to relate to and understand why these people do what they do and why they feel they need to do it. Irene begins judging and feeling jealous towards Clare’s increasing popularity among the social elite of Harlem, one she feels she has been gaining due to her beauty, but she too has been guilty of taking advantage of her lighter skin tone as she blends in with white people from time to time, as well as taking advantage of her social standing over other black people. The hypocrisy is something that is so easy to relate to and that makes the character of Irene all the more complex and hypocritical, someone we can easily see ourselves in.

Rebecca Hall eliminates visual colour altogether from Passing, insisting on shooting it in black and white. This would normally seem too on-the-nose initially, but because Hall is so careful and gentle in her direction, it never feels this way. It just feels right from a time-period perspective as well as the overall mood and tone of the piece. Actors directing actors in a film can often lead to an imbalance between performance and storytelling, placing bias in "LOOK I'M ACTING" performances over what the story needs in order for it to be as effective as possible. But it’s Hall’s intuition as both a skilled actor and storyteller that allows her to find the perfect balance, allowing her eye for detail to give us an unbiased artistic vision with each brushstroke having equal importance in the overall picture. Each scene is blocked expertly as if it were a play, but they’re framed and shot with such laser-focused precision that it doesn’t detract from the story and what each scene is really about.

First-time directors often go through growing pains of how to effectively stage their scenes that could often lead down a dangerous path of style over substance, losing the identity and purpose each scene needs to play in the overarching themes of the intended work. Hall avoids all that, letting her text and performers take each moment to where the film’s story and its themes need to go in order for us to understand and relate to it. This doesn’t restrict her actors or her visual eye though, allowing a certain kind of freedom for her performers to branch out and really unpack the dialogue and meat of each scene - something that is evident through the subtleties of their body language, the nuance of their expressions and the understanding of their dialogue. Hall places the camera in such a way that it simultaneously works as both a front-row seat to a two-hander as well as being right in the middle of each scene with them, confronting them as the characters come to terms with every little word and moment Passing wants us to digest. Not only is Rebecca Hall an actor’s director, she’s a director’s director, showcasing instincts that only the most experienced filmmakers could ever dream of being able to utilize. She even holds back on allowing music to manipulate our feelings from scene to scene, with simple era-appropriate piano pieces to bridge acts together as opposed to telling us how we must feel in each moment.

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are downright incredible as these childhood friends come to terms with the identities and roles they have within their own stories. People have always known how talented Ruth Negga is, but people seem to forget just how versatile and skilled Tessa Thompson really is. Last year’s Sylvie’s Love had Tessa Thompson delivering one of the best performances of the year. True to form, she has done the same here, delivering her finest role to date and one of the best performances 2021 has to offer. Just like Rebecca Hall’s direction, Negga and Thompson bring a level of restrain and expert control to their roles that allow for the nuances and deeper meaning behind each line, character and performance beat to slowly reveal themselves. As much as the film feels like a play, they don’t allow for big expressive performances to overtake what the film is and should be about as these two effectively pass to those around them, each other and even themselves. It challenges us to read between the lines with each moment and performance beat as they give us breadcrumbs, allowing us to figure them out, giving us a chance to truly relate to them from a sociological and personal point of view.

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are supported by an outstanding cast around them, but it’s the two of them that are the real lifeblood to Rebecca Hall’s incredibly impressive directorial debut. They’re unbelievable, and it should be no surprise that they get deserved nods going into awards season. But with that, it’s Rebecca Hall’s personal touch and her ability to understand the original text and its power in relating to today’s audiences that allows for Passing to become something truly special. It’s a beautifully constructed, performed and resonant piece that is quite simply one of the finest films of the year and one of the best debuts by a filmmaker I have seen in a long time. Rebecca Hall is a damn natural and Passing is as close to perfection a first-time filmmaker could ever dream of achieving.

Where you can watch it: Netflix (Worldwide)

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