An adaptation of Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen's 1929 book, writer-director Rebecca Hall's debut feature Passing is a pretty looking film that often mimes at deeper conversations about race, class, and sexuality but ultimately eludes saying anything interesting.
And through it all, I wished the two leads could overcome their gay yearning for just once and KISS.
Shot in what Sundance refers to as a "creamy" (!!!!) black and white film, Passing begins on a sweltering hot New York day in the 1920s. Irene (Tessa Thompson) takes refuge from the heat in a hotel tea room, using her ability to pass as a white woman to gain entry into the whites-only space. Irene is clearly uncomfortable, preoccupied with the idea of being caught, until she is—by an old friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who also happens to pass as white.
As the two women catch up, they realize they took different paths when it came to their racial identity: Irene decided to live as a Black woman while Clare chose to live as a white one. Despite being married and having a child, no one in Clare's new life knows that she's Black. It's as if her community were some distant, unpleasant dream.
After an encounter with Clare's husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård, who maybe just likes playing shitty husbands), where he spewed his hatred of Black people, Irene tries to distance herself from her friend. But a series of letters bring the two back in touch, with Clare insistently inserting herself in Irene's life as a way to be close to someone who understands her.
Hall communicates very well how marriage restricts both women from living their lives as they please. Irene is a well-off but unfulfilled housewife who mopes across the screen, avoiding her husband's touches. And the effervescent Clare's luxurious lifestyle and physical safety could be upended if John ever found out the truth about her heritage. The 4:3 aspect ratio only heightens the trapped feeling.
But beyond the cliched sentiment of "We're all of us passing for something or other, aren't we?," a line uttered by a misty-eyed looking Irene, Passing does not convincingly engage with the question of what it means to pass—economically, socially, materially. Instead, viewers are treated to a spare Blood Orange soundtrack, a quivering Thompson in every scene, and a predictably tragic ending for a tragic mulatta.
The most frustrating aspect of the film, for me, was the oblique and frankly eye-roll worthy treatment of the women's yyyyyyeeeaaaarrrrnnnniiiinnngggggg desire for one another. Of course, Irene and Clare have some sort of unspoken thang for each other. Of course, there are knowing glances. Quick but meaningful hand touch. And, yes, since you're wondering, there is a scene of Irene rolling around in bed, just thinking about Clare. It's all gesturing toward an idea but leaves their relationship unsettled in an unsatisfying way.
This overtly gay shit may not be in the original novel, but I felt like I needed a moment of emotional and physical release between Irene and Clare. You can forgive me for wanting something solid to hold onto in this wispy and repressed drama.
You can watch the second screening of Passing on Monday, February 1.