In the mid-1920s, budding writer Nella Larsen set her eyes on joining the ranks of the rising “New Negro” writers spilling out of the Harlem Renaissance like Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and their leader and mentor Alain Locke. The Chicago native even relocated from New Jersey to Harlem to better place herself — and her husband, trailblazing physicist Elmer Imes — in the heart of the cultural action. While Larsen has not yet enjoyed the full recognition of her contemporaries, she produced two remarkable novels that continue to enthrall readers. The best known of the pair is “Passing,” a complex examination of race and sexuality set against the backdrop of the same ’20s-era Harlem that Larsen was so keen to be part of.
The book, like its predecessor “Quicksand,” is run through with details culled from Larsen’s own life, including her experiences as a mixed-race woman in a time of heightened racial division. It’s a calling-card work, and in first-time director Rebecca Hall’s capable hands, “Passing” becomes a similarly seminal feature film, as beautiful and bruising and knotty as the novel that inspired it. Like Larsen, Hall hails from a mixed background, and her own experiences with racial presentation and expectation help root a complicated story that resists any and all hammy or heavy-handed twists.
Shot in luminous black-and-white by cinematographer Eduard Grau (a choice that, given the material, might sound gimmicky, and is not), Hall also opted for a boxed-in 4:3 aspect ratio, all the better to heighten the film’s constant tension and the sense that its characters can’t escape the confines of their lives. Hall sanded away some of the book’s more convoluted plot points, setting it almost entirely in Harlem (there is no Chicago flashback here) and doing away with a handful of characters to better focus on its central stars, Irene “Rene” Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry Bellew (Ruth Negga).
As the film opens, a restrained Irene navigates her way through a sweltering New York City summer day, tucking her face inside her hat all the better to, well, maybe not hide exactly, but at least obscure. She’s so careful that even a pair of white women who accidentally drop a “pickaninny” doll at her feet don’t balk when Irene, a Black woman, returns it to them. The question of whether they don’t pick up on her racial identity or don’t care about it lingers, particularly as Irene continues with her errands with the same measure of concealment. Stopping off at luxe hotel known for its breezy rooftop cafe, Irene is discomfited by the gaze of a white woman sitting just across from her. What, she seems to think, does she see?
Thompson, the rare actress who is just at home in grandiose Marvel properties — her Valkryie rides a goddamned winged horse into battle and makes it look natural — as she is in more restrained period pieces, plays Irene as a natural observer. She looks at everything, and so too does Hall, skimming around the breezy cafe, making note of everyone and, most importantly, what they might be thinking when they look at Irene. No one is looking harder than Clare, however.
Childhood friends who haven’t seen each other in nearly a decade, Irene is shocked to realize that the white woman staring her down isn’t white at all; it’s Clare who’s bi-racial, just like Irene. While different audiences will bring different levels of understanding to “Passing,” Hall doesn’t spoon-feed what transpires between the women, trusting that people will get it long before Clare explains away her current state during their extended visit. Clare has done something that shocks Irene — or does it, really? — to her core: She’s passing as white. She’s married a white man (Alexander Skarsgsard, uncomfortable as the racist and sexist John Bellew), bearing him a child who is even more light-skinned than Clare, and scarcely returning to the Harlem of her youth.
But seeing Irene lights something in Clare, and Negga’s effervescent performance cleverly masks the roiling confusion building inside of her. As happy as Clare says she is with her life, her instant obsession with Irene — and her subsequent insertion into nearly every aspect of her life — hints how desperate she is to share the terrible secret she’s kept for so long. Thompson is all bundled nerves, and while Negga initially steals the spotlight with her bigger, brasher performance, Thompson steadily builds to something searing. Hall made many good choices for her debut — her entire crafts department turned in rich period production elements — but the casting of her leads might be the best of the bunch.
Understandably, Irene can’t shake the interaction, and when a letter arrives from Clare, stuffed with flowery language that makes Irene’s husband Brian (Andre Holland) titter, she’s unable to ignore the effect her old friend has had on her. Much like Larsen’s novel, Hall’s “Passing” simmers with a homoerotic subtext that eventually gives way to jealousy and ruin. Both Clare and Irene are bi-racial, and each has made a definitive choice as to which portion of their racial makeup defines them and the world they choose to live in — is it possible something similar is happening with their sexual identities? Can we just choose who we are? And what happens to the pieces of us we try to reject?
Not one to be rebuffed, Clare — who Negga plays as irrepressible in every sense of the word — shows up at the Redfields’ Harlem brownstone and essentially pleads to be let into their lives. Spending time in Harlem, even if most people think she’s white, frees Clare to enjoy the things she’s so long shut out of her life, even as the steady Irene reminds her of the danger in her possible exposure. Oh, but Clare is so hard to resist. Irene’s husband and sweet sons also fall, in varying ways, under Clare’s sway, and the weaving of Clare and Irene’s lives seems wholly, uneasily complete.
“Passing” asks who is allowed in certain spaces (and who is the gatekeeper of those spaces), and what happens when people are ejected from them, either by their own free will or an outside force. How do you get back inside? Can you, really? And what’s the price for such infractions? As Clare’s secret frays Irene’s nerves and her very sense of self, “Passing” and Hall reject pat answers. Larsen’s novel walked a similarly tough tonal line, amping the drama without giving a sense of relief. Even when a definitive conclusion comes, the tension and questions don’t stop. How can they? Larsen never set out to deliver answers; just rich, searching stories rounded in real experience — precisely what Hall has translated to the big screen for her formidable first outing.
“Passing” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.