Better Than ‘Passing’

Rebecca Hall’s brilliant adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel about Black identity in 1920s New York

African-American author, novelist, and activist Nella Larsen’s semi-autobiographical novel Passing isn’t just a great book about identity. It’s a great book about race; about being a black woman in America, yearning to break free. It’s about how when you are a minority, you are treated differently because of the color of your skin, which doesn’t bode well for those trying to live a regular life. More than that, it’s a great piece of writing.

PASSING ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Rebecca Hall
Written by: Rebecca Hall, Nella Larsen
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård
Running time: 98 mins

How fortunate, then, to see this brilliant source material brought to life by the perfect actor and director in the film adaptation. Star Tessa Thompson beautifully embodies the quiet despair of Irene, while director Rebecca Hall breathes life into Prohibition-era New York. Hall also wrote the screenplay, and maintains Larsen’s signature voice, both in dialogue and atmosphere, which drops us into a sweaty, black-and-white Harlem.

On a hot summer’s day, Irene is downtown on an errand. You can feel the heat as she walks to the market, the streets so humid they blur the camera. Escaping the weather, Irene ducks into a hotel tea room, where she sees a prosperous white couple laying on the PDA. She recognizes the wife, Clare (Ruth Negga), but last time she saw Clare, Clare was Black.

The two get to talking, and Irene asks if Clare’s husband knows her real identity. He doesn’t. In fact, both Clare and Irene are light enough to “pass” for White, though one wonders how anyone could look at Thompson for more than two seconds and think she’s Caucasian? This is someone who starred in Dear White People, for pity’s sake. Anyhow, Irene makes it through a conversation with Clare’s husband (a perfectly racist Alexander Skarsgard) before walking back to Harlem, hoping to never see her again.

The conflict at the center of Passing isn’t just this encounter, but Clare’s unannounced visit to Irene’s home. Irene is hesitant at first–rule of thumb: don’t let someone into your house if their husband uses the N-word–but she opens the door anyway, which opens the metaphorical door to all sorts of problems. Clare, after years of pretending to be White, finds herself drawn to Irene’s life and husband. Negga is stunning in a tender, brash, multi-layered performance. She offers an emotional foil to the hushed confidence of Thompson’s character, and the scene where her character gets what’s coming to her, at a party on Christmas Eve, is delicious.

But Irene receives her own comeuppance, and Thompson, who has so valiantly worn her confidence like armor, isn’t so sure of herself. Her performance is nothing short of masterful, a study in nuance and identity, and when the story breaches her armor, it’s a gut punch.

Nuance and identity are the main themes of the film’s story. The performances reflect that, and so does Hall’s direction.

Hall does her best Larsen impression, creating a cinematic language that mirrors Larsen’s enigmatic prose. The black and white imagery is Larsen-esque, capturing the division between Whites and Blacks through light and dark hues. The camera, positioned at arms-length, frames these characters in doorways, and emphasizes the passing between two spaces as characters moves between living rooms and dining rooms. Hall literalizes Larsen’s prose without losing its mystery. It’s a masterclass in adaptation.

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Asher Luberto

Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, The Progressive and The Village Voice.

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