They often say the eyes are the windows of the soul and nowhere is that more true in Rebecca Hall’s PASSING. It opens rather simply in a restaurant of a hotel that most people wouldn’t even pay attention to but for Irene Redfield and Clare dining in this location, it could get them arrested or possibly murdered.
At separate tables, Irene is quite, head down as she hopes she doesn’t draw attention to herself, while everyone goes about enjoying their meal. Then suddenly she looks up and sees another pair of eyes, equally secretive yet yearning for someone to reach out to her. They breathe, a moment shared between the two that says everything; “I can’t believe we got away with this.”
PASSING is a powerful adaptation from two incredible actors who pours their motions into not just their character but into each other – both mixed-race Black women navigating a segregated New York in the Twenties – in this layered movie that relies on not just the power of the script but the many silent yet explosive movements. Every look, body movement is carefully placed from the stiffness of an arm to a darting look to the shallows breathes.
This is a performance that encapsulates the Black experience, the oppressive world that’s not just segregated racially but economically. Tessa Thompson plays Irene “Reenie” Redfield who’s married to a doctor (André Holland’s Brian) which grants her privileges of middle-class life not other African-Americans have access to. While she is light-skinned enough to be able to float through white spaces without trouble, is because of her light skin accessibility she bumps into her old schoolfriend Clare (Ruth Negga), which will eventually change her world forever as the color divide crosses over into dangerous consequences during the Harlem Renaissance era.
After a chance encounter reunites the former childhood friends one summer afternoon, Irene reluctantly allows Clare into her home, where she ingratiates herself to Irene’s husband and family, and soon her larger social circle without any regard to other people’s feelings. As their lives become more deeply intertwined, Irene who has carefully crafted her life as a White woman soon has everything she’s worked for upended. It is in this moment PASSING becomes a powerful examination of obsession, repression and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities.
Audiences will be unable to tear themselves away from the magnetic Negga as Clare who oozes charisma as she disarms anyone who comes near, turning people, places and things upside down as she floats in and out of their lives; resulting in Irene who has repressions of her own turning envious and resentful even as she tries to shield Clare from the dangers that awaits.
Director Rebecca Hall further brings forth the grey areas of these two Black women passing by filming in black and white that allows the cinematographer to play around with how dark or brightly lit Clare is in relation to who she interacts with, taking audiences along for an introspective, and deeply personal, journey that challenges our understanding of identity itself.
In just 98 minutes, PASSING reclaims and reinvents the mixed-race narrative, imbuing it with almost irresolvable complexity by revealing the conflicts at the core of each of these characters as they grapple with issues of race, class, and gender with outstanding performances from everyone in the cast, this is movie built in tension that will leave audiences talking about the powerful messages and consequences repression placed upon us all.