Passing ★★★½

“You’d think they’d be satisfied being white.”

“Rot! Who’s satisfied being anything?”

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, Passing, has been finally released on Netflix with the loud and catchy declaration of “nothing is black and white.” The film focuses on the reunion of two high school friends, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), both black women in 1920s New York, though with one striking twist: Clare passes as a white woman. Moreover, she is married to a white man who detests black people.

Based on Nella Larsen’s book of the same name, the chosen subject matter of Passing revolves around a fairly under-explored 1920s social construct of concealing one’s race. The film definitely provides audiences with a unique perspective on the social consequences of ‘passing’. The question of ‘do you betray your roots or suffer with everyone else?’ is embroidered perfectly in Passing, prompting comparisons with racism today.

The aforementioned message is further strengthened by Hall’s vision, which is highly qualitative given this is her first attempt at directing. The scenery is presented in a stunning manner, it is serene and character-focused. Maybe the most in-your-face tie between the message and the visual is the film also being entirely black and white, though this obviousness only pulls the audience further towards examining White and Black life rather than being overly simplistic. Besides, the absence of the colors suits Hall’s directing well in this case, making it even more artistic than it already is.

As much as the cinematography and the directing deserve praise, the stylish portrayal of the characters should also be taken note of given that Thompson delivers one of her best performances to date. Every personal conflict Irene comes across can be read from her face, which is definitely easy to interpret, but neither too simplistic nor excessively dramatic. Likewise, Negga’s portrayal of Clare is just as wonderful, a character with deep and complex emotions who is stuck in-between two worlds, trying to navigate both Whiteness and Blackness while remaining pragmatic. Especially Negga’s changes in her voice as a precaution to some of the situations she finds herself in is incredible.

Passing is of course not without its faults, which is expected in a debut film, though those issues are quite sparse, particularly in relation to the positive aspects of the film. First off, the script, while being near-perfect, can still be a touch over-dramatic when it comes to some of the lines. Furthermore, the aspect ratio of the film is too outdated for it to be viable in 2021, even if the setting of the film is technically suitable for such an aspect ratio.

Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives in the case of Passing. With a runtime of just a tad over ninety minutes, the film definitely deserves the attention of anyone who is even slightly interested in the setting, the topic or good acting. Here’s to hoping that Rebecca Hall sustains her unique first-time establishment with projects that builds up on this well-executed drama.

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