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The Cinematography of ‘Passing’ Captures Tessa Thompson’s Unease in White — and Black — Spaces

Cinematographer Eduard Grau discusses how he used the film's black and white footage to explore the emotions Tessa Thompson's character doesn't overtly express.

PASSING - (Pictured) TESSA THOMPSON as IRENE. Cr: Netflix © 2021

Tessa Thompson in “Passing”

Netflix

Passing” follows its main character Irene (Tessa Thompson) closely, because it has to. The protagonist of Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of the Nella Larson novel emotes in hidden bursts and snatches. Blink and you’ll miss it. Driven by the rhythms and occasional excitements of everyday life, the film features groceries as much as it does jazz galas, and uses its black-and-white cinematography and narrow aspect ratio (the film is shot in a boxier 4:3 frame as opposed to standard modern widescreen) as windows into Irene’s world.

That world is as painfully constrained — by color, gender, and class — as the film itself is by its narrower frame. But Irene isn’t looking to break free from her constraints, or even articulate what her desires might be. Not until, that is, she encounters former classmate Clare (Ruth Negga), who is passing for white with a husband and child. Using black-and-white cinematography to tell a story of the segregated 1920s during the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance would, on its own, help dramatize the film’s setting and subject matter. But cinematographer Edu Grau went even further. He and Hall captured the protagonist’s inner world — and her discomfort with the wider world around her — through the cinematography itself. With lighting and tonality, Grau helps the audience see the power dynamics at play everywhere Irene goes. And makes us feel them as deeply as she.

In the film’s opening sequence, Irene is introduced in an outwardly ordinary, but inwardly fraught moment, as she successfully passes for white in order to shop at a whites-only toy store. The image is strikingly overexposed, Irene’s face almost invisible behind her hat. With such pronounced whitening out of the image, Grau makes the character’s struggle to go unseen visible for the audience, and we realize just how exposed Irene feels in that moment.

Passing-Toy-Store

The opening of “Passing”

Screenshot/Netflix

“I’ve never shot so bright and so overexposed,” Grau told IndieWire of that intentional choice. He wanted to create a space where Irene’s discomfort was visceral in order to serve as a strong contrast to the spaces in which Irene feels more comfortable (although it’s debatable whether she’s ever truly at peace). “It was important to establish a white world and then find the nuances of the grays and the blacks so that [the film can show] what’s in between,” Grau said.

Grau also achieved the same emotional ends by employing the opposite approach. In Irene’s home, Grau worked with the production team — led by Nora Mendis — to paint the walls darker. This created a sense of coolness and refuge in contrast to the overexposure of the toy shop and the anxiously blurry background at the whites-only Drayton Hotel. The paint job had the added bonus of sabotaging any attempts to re-saturate the digital film footage to tell a color version of the story. “The walls [at the house were] white and I was like, ‘You know what? I think we need to make them darker,'” Grau said. “And we had to choose the color. So I chose the most ugly red, to make sure that no one will ever want to see this movie in color!”

But her home is now where Irene feels most comfortable. Even in the rooms of the brownstone that she shares with her husband (André Holland) and two children, Irene often finds herself cornered by light that slices through her living room or onto her bed, places she should feel sanctuary. She becomes trapped under the harsh ceiling light of her own dining room, unable to escape from a conversation about racial slurs. By contrast, she presides over a bustling, jazzy benefit dance where light bounces off the rich woods and polished tables and makes Irene look as in control as she feels in that moment. “[We] were exploring the different levels of light and comfort, and describing our content throughout the film,” Grau said. “We’re sharing story with the light and the shadows.”

Passing-Jazz-Party

“Passing”

Screenshot/Netflix

Grau also charted Irene’s sense of discomfort through what he did and didn’t show, using the narrow frame and relatively shallow depth-of-field provided opportunities to explore Irene’s character. In those compositions, we hone in on her every subtle movement, seeing close up all the ways in which she minimizes herself or tamps down on her feelings. The closer Grau takes us to Irene, the more we see all the ways in which she tries to hide. “There’s four or five moments in the movie that we go into Irene’s profile,” Grau said. “Suddenly, each [profile shot] has a lot more depth. There is the hat that covers her [face], and then the eye, and then the softness of the focus. That’s when we kind of get into her interior world.”

Grau saved these glimpses for emotionally complex moments like Irene’s furtive glancing around the Drayton or her realization about whom Clare has married, the camera working with Thompson’s performance to imply everything that Irene hides below the surface. “There’s a beauty of not saying everything,” Grau said. “There’s a beauty of not seeing everything. And there’s a beauty of constraint, of making the audience construct what’s around [that] they are not seeing.”

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