Film: “Passing,” written and directed by Rebecca Hall
Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” a film based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, is the story of two Black women: Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Childhood friends, they reunite by chance in New York after many years of separation. Irene lives a genteel life in a Harlem brownstone, married to Brian, a doctor (André Holland). Meanwhile Clare, a light-skinned Black woman who has chosen to pass for white, has married John (Alexander Skarsgard), a successful (but bigoted) white banker who doesn’t know his wife is Black.
This sets the stage for a fascinating, rather tense turn of events, as Clare begins to ingratiate herself into the lives of Irene and her family. It becomes apparent that she somewhat regrets her decision to pass and misses socializing among Black folk. Irene, while feeling a degree of pity for her old friend, wants little to do with this uncomfortable situation—or Clare’s bigoted husband.
The best art has a basis in truth and “Passing” is no exception. The practice of persons "passing”—attempting to claim recognition in another racial group than the one they were believed to belong to—was widespread. Sociologist Charles Johnson calculated that 355,000 blacks in the US had “passed” between 1900 and 1920.
“Passing” was written and directed by actress Roberta Hall, daughter of Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and herself of mixed-race heritage. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Edu Grau and the sumptuous jazz score by Devonte Hayes. And while the film is great to look at and the music is a dream, above all the reason to see this is its quiet, but
powerful examination of race—a subject as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.