Rebecca Hall’s delicate adaptation of Nella Larson's 1929 book is more relevant than ever.
Adapted from the 1929 book by Nella Larson, director Rebecca Hall’s debut feature film Passing stars Tessa Thompson who works alongside Ruth Negga to tell a vital story of societal issues: acceptance, race and colourism. Set in Harlem, New York, Hall’s film centres around Thompson’s character, whose seemingly perfect life is turned upside down when she encounters an old friend who is ‘passing’ as a White woman.
The act of racial passing is something that has been explored in literature for time, even preceding Larson’s 1920s exploration. As early as 1857, writer Frank Webb explored the concept in his novel, The Garies and Their Friends which focuses on the experiences of mixed race men in North America. In Passing, the notion that to be White was to offer some protection in a world that was so cruel to Black people is explored in a way which seeks to reckon with a post-Prohibition America. Simply, Black people are seen as “acceptable” in certain circles, a commodity to be used to the advantage of the White upper-class community.
Tessa Thompson’s character Irene is affluent in her community: she is well-liked, known and accepted in social circles which see her mixing with members of White Harlem. But in encountering her old school friend Clare, she begins to question her experiences, life and how she is perceived by her White counterparts.
The complex layering of characterisation orginally created by Nella Larsen is effortlessly adapted for the screen by director Rebecca Hall: Clare is bubbly, fun to be around and has seemingly assimilated so far into Whiteness that even her own (White) husband John’s nickname “Nig” for her seems to leave her unphased. Irene, though, is of course horrified.
In forsaking her racial identity, Clare is able to straddle a secret line between her past and her present when she begins to return to Harlem to spend time with Irene and her family. Leaving her racist husband behind for the freedom Harlem brings, Clare is convinced that she will be able to assimilate back into a culture which she was once a part of. Irene’s life begins to crumble from underneath her feet as Clare steadily worms her way further into her life. In surrounding herself with Clare’s delusions in assimilation, Irene begins to lose parts of herself in the process.
With cinematographer Eduard Grau in the driving seat as the film’s director of photography, we’re treated to intimate close ups of the struggle being played out from both Negga and Thompson. The genius of Passing doesn’t lie in its dialogue, it lies in its dance. Every look, flinch and shot is carefully captured to bring to life the visceral feelings of every character involved. Negga delivers a stellar performance, all under the gaze of Hall’s lens, which offers an affinity for two women who couldn’t be less alike, aside from their racial background.
Whilst their initial meeting might be coincidental, it is definitely fated: both women are passing but only one continues the charade. In the wake of continual discussions surrounding race, identity and appropriation of culture in post-Jim Crow America and further afield, it only feels right that we take in the adaptation of Nessa Larsen’s novel, which – especially for a directorial debut – Hall tackles with ease.
Passing is available to watch on Netflix now.