Rebecca Hall may not quite be an A-list actor yet, but she’s still a wonderfully versatile talent and I’ve praised many of her performances on this very blog. What I didn’t know until now is that Hall is the daughter of Maria Ewing, a prominent opera singer of mixed race. In turn, Ewing was born of a black man in Detroit who used his relatively fair complexion to pass for white. Thus Ewing and her father both spent their entire lives in denial, flatly refusing to discuss their race with anyone, even their closest family.
So here’s Passing, Rebecca Hall’s debut feature as a writer/producer/director, adapted from the 1929 novel written by a mixed-race woman. Let’s see what we’ve got, shall we?
Exec Producer Tessa Thompson plays Irene Redfield, a black woman living in Harlem and working as a volunteer for the local Negro League. Her husband (Brian, played by Andre Holland) is a doctor and they have two young sons together. The kicker is that Irene has a lighter skin tone for an African-American, but she doesn’t try to pass herself off as white, except maybe once or twice when she feels like treating herself.
Enter Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga, another executive producer), an old childhood friend of Irene’s. Clare is another mixed-race woman who’s spent pretty much her entire life passing for white, ever since she was orphaned and taken in by a family of extremely white, devoutly evangelical relatives. Clare is now married to John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgard), a successful businessman and an unrepentant racist. He of course has no idea that he’s married to a black woman, and Clare has kept her race a closely-guarded secret from literally everyone. She and John have one daughter together, which complicates matters further.
Irene and Clare reunite and catch up over a chance encounter, during one of those rare times when Irene chose to go out impersonating a white woman. From there, we’re off to the races.
Irene has a decent middle-class life in Harlem, but nothing close to the jet-setting life of luxury that Clare enjoys. Irene has a wide variety of close friends in the African-American community — and even a few white friends, like the eccentric novelist Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp) — but she’s not as effortlessly beautiful or charming as Clare is. Yet everything that Irene has, she got honestly and it was built to last. Clare’s entire life and all of her relationships are built on a lie, set to come crashing down if and when her secret gets out. As popular and well-off as Clare is, Irene is literally the only person on the planet whom she can be completely and totally honest with.
In summary, what we’ve got here is a situation in which each of these two women want what the other has. Thus Irene is sent into a tailspin of paranoia as she suspects her husband of potential marital infidelity, while Clare… well, we can all guess what’s eventually going to happen with her big secret.
At one point, Hugh openly asks why anyone would ever choose to be black. If a black person could spend their whole life pretending to be white, why wouldn’t they? The film makes the answer to that question abundantly clear. Yes, it puts the impostor at the upper end of the socioeconomic ladder and spares them from much of the systemic racism plaguing our country. But on the other hand, keeping such a huge secret from the entire world is a terrible burden to carry. Moreover, race is such a huge part of one’s identity that keeping it secret from even the closest of friends and family takes a massive emotional/spiritual toll.
Then there’s the matter of Brian. Here’s a man with a great family, a respectable career as a doctor, and did I mention that he’s got a freaking maid? (That would be Zu, played by Ashley Ware Jenkins.) By all standards, he’s done exceptionally well for himself. With the caveat that he’s done well for himself by the standards and opportunities of a black man living in the USA. By his own admission, the man is never satisfied and he always wants more for himself and his family. Especially because he and his sons will always have to live with the knowledge that they could be openly murdered by white people for no reason at all and with no consequence at all, regardless of how wealthy or successful they get.
(NOTE: When the film takes place in 1929, Emmett Till hadn’t even been born yet. Though it’s worth recognizing that black boys had been lynched before that especially public case, and it doesn’t excuse Irene’s willful ignorance to pretend otherwise.)
Brian wants to move his family to some more progressive and civilized part of the world (Freaking South America? Seriously, dude?), or at least raise his children to be conscious of the violent racial toxicity of the nation they’re living in. Compare that to Irene, who wants to raise her children to be happy and shield them from all that ugliness for as long as she possibly can. Brian rightly calls Irene out on her willful, potentially suicidal ignorance, but there’s one point he neglects to specifically mention: In actively struggling to keep herself and her children ignorant of racial violence on the grounds that it’s too ugly and unpleasant to consider, Irene — a freaking black woman! — is partaking in a classic act of white privilege.
Irene is fair-skinned enough that she could plausibly pass for white. If she really wanted to, she could blend into white society and opt out of all this bullshit, like Clare does. But Brian and his sons could never pass for white. They don’t have the luxury of taking off the targets painted onto their backs. Thus Brian and Irene are each coming at this from an opposing viewpoint that the other is physically incapable of fully understanding.
Oh, and that’s not even getting started on how white people fetishize people of color, treating them as some new and exotic subject of fascination. The film goes into great detail about that, in a clever and potent way.
For better and for worse, there can be little doubt that this was the debut directorial effort of a talented and passionate actor. The vast majority of shots in this movie are close-ups or extreme close-ups, often done as static shots, and with precious little in the way of a musical score. The filmmakers will often linger extensively on shots of the actor’s faces or hands, with basically nothing in the way of distraction. Perhaps my favorite example is a long continuous shot to show Irene’s shaking hands gripping a teapot. Another highlight is the classic Citizen Kane shot of a character looking at infinite reflections of herself to show her own increasingly blurry sense of self-identity.
Oh, and I’d be remiss not to mention Irene’s spit-take near the start of the film, explicit enough that the audience will catch it, yet discrete enough to evade everyone else in the audience. That one split-second reaction more or less demonstrates the M.O. of the entire film.
The unfortunate drawback to all of this is that while the film is heavy on introspection and racial themes, it’s shockingly light on plot. Not much of anything really happens unless John is there to provide a palpable threat, and he only appears briefly in three scenes. There’s little doubt that the pacing drags terribly as a result, making this 100-minute movie feel considerably longer.
On a final note, I have to talk about the black-and-white presentation. On the one hand, the monochrome presentation washes out so much of the actors’ skin colors, which might be considered counter-productive for a story about mixed-race people and all their differing shades in between black and white. Then again, the black-and-white photography bleaches out Thompson and Negga in such a way that the both of them could pass for white much more plausibly. And of course, the retro presentation (along with the top-notch costume design) helps to place us more firmly in the setting of 1929. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that the black-and-white photography could underline the premise that Irene and Clare are both struggling to find their place as people of mixed-race in a world aggressively segregated along racial lines.
Oh, and the film always cuts to white instead of cutting to black. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it’s a fascinating choice.
Passing is not an easy film to get through, for a number of reasons. Yes, the glacial pace and shoestring plot are significant factors, and anyone going into this movie should do so with an abundance of patience. But far more importantly, the film examines a crucial aspect of race that’s gone woefully underexplored in cinema to date, and does so by putting the audience directly in the middle of a conflict between two mixed-race friends with heated disagreements. First and foremost, this is an actors’ showcase, and the film lives and dies by its powerhouse central cast of actors, all of whom give compelling performances that perfectly demonstrate the stresses and challenges of living in a world that isn’t as clear-cut black-and-white as racists would like to pretend.
The best I can say about this film is that it accomplishes everything it set out to do. On those merits, I can give Passing a passing grade. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely worth a look.