“Passing” Is A Powerful Screenplay About Race, Histories, And Shared Secrets

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After promotional images and the trailer for Rebecca Hall’s new screen adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing dropped earlier this year, a lot of people found the casting a bit dubious. The plot is of two old school friends, both who are half Black/half White, who reconnect in their 30s in 1920s NYC. Oscar nominee Ruth Negga and Marvel star Tessa Thompson are our leads, and both are supposed to be playing characters who pass more for White than Black. Yet most viewers would agree the actresses appear more Black in real life.


When I first heard of Passing, I wondered, “Why didn’t Rebecca just cast herself as one of the leads?” Hall herself is part Black, yet most people would have no idea unless they clicked on her Wiki page. So she could have co-starred with another actress, such as TV starlet Troian Bellisario, who’s another ambiguously looking actress with a multi-racial background. But because I’m a fan of Hall and the story sounded interesting, I put aside my disbelief as much as I could when I went into watching the movie; and suspended my logic the same way I would with Cary Grant playing an American with a fancy accent in one of his classics.

In our retrospective tale, Irene Redfield (Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Negga) are two mixed-race women with very different lives. Irene modestly lives in Harlem with her husband Brian (André Holland) and their two young sons, while Clare is living the high life with her successful, White husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård) in Manhattan. The pair meet for the first time in over a decade during a chance meeting in the city. Irene is shocked to learn that Clare identifies as only White with her marriage, while the former has chosen to embrace her Black heritage publicly.

Maybe Hall felt it wasn’t quite her place to cast herself in Passing, despite having family on her mother’s side who might have experienced the same prejudice as Irene and Clare. Or perhaps it’s because it would be considered slightly tone-deaf in 2021 to cast mostly White actresses in a film about race set a whole century ago. People on the Internet have pointed out that what was considered White-passing in the early 20th century isn’t entirely the same as it is contemporarily. With that in mind, I could kind of accept Negga fooling White people into thinking she isn’t Black, but not so much with Thompson.

Both ladies are given as much make-up and lighting in this beautifully shot B&W period piece to fit their characters, and Negga is given either a wig or blonde hair dye for extra emphasis. Even with modern actors we’ve seen before, the film does manage to feel like we stepped right back into mid-‘20s New York, with Hall going as far as opting for a fitting 4:3 aspect ratio to look like a vintage ‘talkie.’ The actresses also sport affected, ‘old timey’ voices to sound more old Hollywood, that works a little better for Negga than Thompson. This isn’t meant to be a burn on Thompson, as I do believe she still proves she’s capable of more than just blockbusters in the final analysis, and holds her own here where she’s actually the bigger lead than Negga.

Hall has said adapting Passing was a very personal journey for her to connect with her family’s personal history, and it shows genuinely on the official cut from all angles.


Does Passing look interesting to you? Will you check it out on Netflix? Let us know in the comments!

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