Passing (2021)

19 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Netflix’s “Passing” looks at an age-old issue in the Black community: light-skinned Black people “passing” as white.

“Passing” is the screenwriting/directing debut of actress Rebecca Hall, who adapted the screenplay from a 1929 novel of the same name and for whom this was a deeply personal project, as her grandfather was Black but passed for white. The result is a gem with skillful filmmaking, gorgeous cinematography, and two extraordinary leading performances at the center of it.

Set in New York City in the 1920s, “Passing” is focused on two light-skinned Black women who were good friends in the 1910s but went their separate ways after. Irene aka Rene (Tessa Thompson) now lives in Harlem and has settled down with a doctor for a husband (Andre Holland) and two children, and is a member of the Negro Welfare League. She’s doing some shopping downtown (and doing her best to hide certain features so the posh white people don’t know she’s Black) when she encounters her old friend Clare (Ruth Negga)…who has reinvented herself as a glamorous blonde, married to a wealthy man who doesn’t know she’s Black. As Clare brings Rene up to her hotel suite for a drink, Clare’s husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), arrives and already shows his colors as slimy and bigoted and never sorry for it (of course never realizing the ethnicities of present company). Clare welcomes herself into the lives of Rene and her family, hoping to rekindle her friendship with Rene. But of course, things aren’t as simple as they may seem…

“Passing” was shot in black-and-white, giving Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau ample opportunity to emphasize skin color–it’s much more effective than if it were done in color.

This film has a great cast. Both Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are Oscar-worthy in their roles; they’re able to get across the numerous layers their conflicted characters are covered with. (It’s also the first time I’ve truly seen Thompson, who was good in the “Creed” movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, disappear into a role.) Alexander Skarsgard is of course great as the oily creep, Andre Holland is solid as Rene’s husband who has mixed feelings about where his kids are growing up, and Bill Camp, one of today’s best and understated character actors, turns up as a celebrated white author who is the guest of honor at an NL dance party.

The overall point of “Passing” is made pretty clear, as everyone is passing as something else one way or another, no matter what the race, sexuality, social stance, etc. And I was intrigued by how Rebecca Hall, who proves to be a very capable director, gets it across.

“Passing” is now available on Netflix.

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