It feels like the concept of “identity” is having a cultural moment. Mainstream movies and TV shows are finally doing more than occasionally offering roles to non-straight, -white and -male characters – they’re actually telling complex stories about race and gender. College campuses and large swaths of the internet buzz with language like “preferred pronouns” and “intersectionality.” After thinking about themselves as “normal” or “the default” for centuries, mobs of white liberals have spent the last two years examining their own whiteness (just ask Robin DiAngelo’s accountant).
“Passing,” a new film by actor-turned-director Rebecca Hall that debuted on Netflix Wednesday, may be based on a 1929 novel, but it feels entirely of the current moment. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga deliver a pair of virtuoso performances in this understated picture simmering with both ideas and feelings.
Our first glance of Thompson’s Irene comes in a New York toy store on a sweltering summer day. Sheathed in a light dress, white gloves and a broad sunhat, Irene carries the easy elegance of the rich. “What a lovely woman,” remarks one of the older white ladies in the shop.
But Irene’s darting eyes, shielded by the brim of her hat, betray discomfort. She’s a Black woman, the wealthy wife of a Harlem doctor, but today her light skin is allowing her to “pass” as white. We’re not sure exactly what will happen if someone discovers the deception, but we know it can’t be good based on Irene’s panic when she’s spotted and approached by a striking blonde.
After a few moments of babbling denial, shock washes across Irene’s face as she finally understands: the woman in front of her is also Black, an old friend from school named Clare. Clare, too, is passing, but hers isn’t a temporary visit to whiteness; she lives her entire life as a white woman, complete with a marriage to a virulent racist (Alexander Skarsgård).
The reunion proves jarring for both characters. Irene sees the seductive qualities of Clare’s life, a road that her own light skin may have permitted her to travel, but she’s mostly horrified by her friend’s existence – her estrangement from her community and betrayal of her own identity. Clare, meanwhile, realizes just how much she longs for an outlet to express her Blackness. She pursues a desperate friendship with Irene, who assents over her better judgment. But when Clare gets a little too close to Irene’s husband Hugh (André Holland), Irene’s doubts and insecurities boil to the surface.
Hall’s script, based on Nella Larsen’s novel, lacks set pieces, but it’s packed with ideas. Hugh and Irene fight about whether to share the violent realities of the Black experience with their children or to leave them their innocence. Irene’s sternness toward her own servant Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins) suggests she, too, has internalized a racial hierarchy that privileges lighter skin tones. Finally, clear hints toward an unspoken sexual attraction between Irene and Clare breathe life into a lesson that Irene shares midway through the film and which lingers long after the credits roll: “We’re all of us just passing for something or other.”
The characters verbalize just enough of all of this to orient the audience, but most of the work happens under the surface. Hall’s choice to shoot in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio not only gives “Passing” a throwback look (this was the standard ratio of the ‘20s), it helps put the faces of her talented performers front-and-center. It’s unsurprising that an actor like Hall knows to clear out and let the talent go to work, and the decision pays off here; Thompson, Negga and Holland carry the day.
The subtle shifts of the performer’s bodies and faces are so engrossing, in fact, that viewers may lose track of the time and find that “Passing’s” ambiguous ending arrives sooner than the movie’s 98-minute runtime would have them expect. Despite its novel-roots, the film packs the concentrated crackle of an excellent short story or one-act play. It’s a quiet story, but you’ll feel its bite for days.