Directed by Rebecca Hall
Raise your hand if you’ve ever read the 1929 Nella Larsen novel “Passing.” Now raise your hand if you’d even heard of it before today. I hadn’t. Apparently, Rebecca Hall had. Or somebody brought it to attention. Because the actress decided to adapt the novel herself and also make her directorial debut bringing it to the screen for Netflix. The result is a movie that feels, in some ways, every bit like the 90-year-old story off which it is based—delicate, carefully-worded…not to mention the fact that it was shot in black and white.
After a decade apart, Harlem mother Irene (Tessa Thompson) runs into her former classmate Clare (Ruth Negga) while Clare’s husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is in New York for business. While Irene is somewhat light-skinned, Clare totally passes for white…so much so that even her racist husband is unaware of her true racial background. Irene and her husband (Andre Holland) lead a joyous life in Harlem, but after seeing Clare, Irene begins to wonder what she could be missing out on. Clare, for her part, feels the same way about Irene. Would she be happier if she embraced her Blackness and lived in Harlem with Irene? The two live their lives of FOMO until the film’s gut-punch ending.
I sometimes think about all the good books I’ll never read, or never hear about. Books like “Passing,” which has been printed and reprinted for decades but never passed by my eyes. Or, at least, the synopsis hadn’t. I would’ve remembered that. I also sometimes wonder whether people will run out of original stories to tell on film. But when a century-old novel about something as interesting as this only now gets a movie treatment, I’m given hope. But as for the adaptation itself…meh. I suspect Larsen’s book was better, if only because you can’t fill a book with empty pages like this movie was filled with so many scenes of (admittedly exquisite) images and no dialogue. Sure, contemplative visuals aren’t exactly blank pages. And surely there’s enough that can be read into some of them, if you want. But I’m a writer by trade, and as pretty as “Passing” looked, there’s nothing that tops some great dialogue (and lots of it!). But “Passing” deserves credit for being a rare movie about Black joy, or at least the pursuit of it. That’s not easy to find in movies set in the first half of the 20th century (or any century before it).
Another thing the movie has going for it is great acting. That’s undeniable. I would say Tessa Thompson is at her best ever, but then she’s been so good so many times before! “Creed,” “Sylvie’s Love,” and “Sorry to Bother You” come to mind (especially that bonkers last one!). Ruth Negga, too, is so good in “Loving” that I’m not sure I feel comfortable picking a favorite. Same with Andre Holland, whose starring role in “High Flying Bird” should’ve earned him an Oscar nomination. His supporting turn in “Moonlight,” if it wasn’t so short, definitely would have. But they’re all great here, too, which can’t come as a shock.
In conclusion, “Passing” is a film of contrasts. It passes for good, but it’s not a movie I’ll likely ever watch again. Still, Netflix did well to bring this story to screens all over the world. I only wish it had been done a bit better.