‘Passing’: a movie review

In an illustration of a scene from “Passing,” Irene Redfield (right) and Clare Bellew (left) walk the streets of 1920s Harlem. Graphic by Baeyoung Yoo

In an illustration of a scene from “Passing,” Irene Redfield (right) and Clare Bellew (left) walk the streets of 1920s Harlem. Graphic by Baeyoung Yoo

Rating: 4/5

Now available on Netflix, director Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” is a film of remarkable thematic depth, as it unwinds its tale of racial identity in America with a unique perspective. 

Based on the 1929 novella by author Nella Larsen,“Passing” tells the story of Irene Redfield (played by actress Tessa Thompson), a light-skinned Black woman living in Jim Crow-era Harlem, N.Y., with her husband and two sons. Her idyllic life is challenged when she reunites with a childhood friend named Clare Bellew (played by actress Ruth Negga), a biracial woman who lives, or “passes,” as white. As their contrasting worlds overlap, various tensions emerge in both of their lives, forcing them to contend with stark realities about their racial identities. 

With thematically appropriate black-and-white camerawork fromcinematographer Eduard Grau, “Passing” places significant emphasis on the interactions between its characters and the world around them. The combination of Grau’s visuals and Hall’s detailed depiction of 1920s New York creates a sense of intimacy and an atmosphere that makes the film an immersive experience. Hall’s screenplay also leans heavily on well-written dialogue to reveal the characters’ backgrounds and personalities as they clash and bond through various incidents and events. 

Irene and Clare are brilliantly written in both Larsen’s novella and Hall’s adapted screenplay, but Thompson and Negga’s performances are what breathe life into their characters’ actions. For Irene, Thompson offers a portrayal of someone whose values as a Black woman are deeply shaken by Clare’s arrival. Irene questions her satisfaction with her life over the course of the film, especially as she finds herself conflicted over Clare’s growing presence in her family. 

Meanwhile, Negga depicts Clare as both heartbreakingly vulnerable and exuberantly lively, reflecting the contrast between her afflicted life with her racist white husband and her reconnectionwith Black culture when she visits Irene in Harlem. 

While “Passing” may seem like it cuts the story off slightly too shortly, albeit with a truly powerful ending, it explores the gray areas of racial identity in a deliberate and hypnotic fashion.As Hall’s directorial debut, it’s a bold and societally relevant achievement, one whose dense complexities are reinforced by stunning performances and confident filmmaking.