Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Rebecca Hall
Screenwriter: Rebecca Hall, based on the novel by Nella Larsen
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/12/21
Opens: October 27, 2021. Streaming November 10, 2021
Chaz Ebert, the CEO of Ebert Digital, passes along some information on the process of passing white. “Someone was considered Black if she had only one drop of Black blood. An octoroon was someone who had an ancestry that was one-eighth Black. To escape the peculiar institution of slavery or a lifetime of discrimination, some African Americans chose to pass as white. They could then become doctors and lawyers, businessmen and engineers, land owners and teachers. One woman would visit a beauty salon at night to have her blond hair straightened with chemical relaxers.”
To dramatize the custom and for full period detail, Rebecca Hall takes off her actor’s cap to deliver a powerful debut direction, filming in 4:3 boxy aspect ratio and black-and-white to mirror New York in the 1920’s. Her focus is on two Black women who, despite their friendship back in high school and a growing affection in the story’s present time will, their distinct personalities will turn them into hostility bordering on murder. Adapting Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel that takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, Hall evokes terrific performances from Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare as mismatched friends.
For those who may not have lived through a period in New York when racism was even more overt than now, some Black women who were light-skinned tried to pass themselves off as white, not because they believed white was superior but because they believed they could get ahead in a white person’s world more easily than if they denied authenticity. “Passing” is not the first movie to deal with the subject; in fact, John Ford and Elia Kazan’s 1949 film “Pinky” finds a Black woman passing as white, married to a white doctor who does not guess her race.
We get the impression from the first scenes watching Irene a.k.a. Renie, walking in downtown Manhattan, wearing a large hat and avoiding eye contact, that she is the one who is passing. She does in fact, hide her features in a mostly white neighborhood, on this day taking a taxi to the Drayton Hotel to cool off in its tea room on a sweltering day. By coincidence she runs into Clare, an old friend, whose own husband has no idea that she is Black. In fact her man John (Alexander Skarsgård), a well-to-do banker who expresses his hatred of “Negroes” while later speaking to Clare and Irene in his home. Wouldn’t you know that Clare trumps her husband in intolerance, refusing to hire a colored maid.
Months later, Irene, living with her doctor husband Brian (André Holland), reads a letter from Clare who hopes to get together again. When Clare shows up in Harlem and climbs up the walkup, we see that Brian resents a woman who refuses to accept her race, but nonetheless warms up to her sexually making Irene becomes anxious enough to drop and break a treasured teapot. Clare is self-aware, stating that she would do anything to get what she wants, a feeling which, as in a Greek tragedy, will lead to her downfall. Irene’s irritation continues even with her husband, who wants their two young sons to be aware of murderous racism in the country while Irene thinks that the boys should be allowed their innocence.
“Passing” will be especially enlightening to the majority of the country who have no idea that at one time, some African-Americans denied their blackness to get ahead. The film is emotionally vibrant, intellectually honest, and blessed by sterling performances of the two principals and a debut by director Rebecca Hall, who may worry that any second feature she will hopefully present to us will be unable to equal or excel this awesome work.
One more compliment: there is virtually no music on the soundtrack, allowing us in the audience to hear every word without the musical distractions that ruin so many American movies.
98 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-