Black & White Double Feature, Part 1: Passing

The Stream: Character motivations are not entirely clear

The Big Screen: Mercifully short, well-acted and great production values

The Final Bill: A complicated, uncommon perspective told with elegance and style.

– Trip Fontaine
Director: Rebecca Hall
Writers: Rebecca Hall, Nella Larsen (based on the novel by)
Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1 hour 33 minutes
Production Companies: AUM Group, Film4, Flat Five Productions
Platform: Netflix (released November 10, 2021)

Well, Streamers, it’s that time of the year when studios release all of their “prestige pics” with dreams of being awards contenders. Netflix has a number of films tossing their hats in that golden ring. Passing, which was released last week, is one of those films with all of the hallmarks of an awards contender. It is shot in stark black & white; it’s based on a novel set in the 1920’s; and, it addresses a serious socio-political issue. Here’s whether Passing passed the prestige pic test.

Passing is Rebecca Hall’s, an actress from such faves as The Prestige, The Town and The Gift, debut as a writer and director. This film is based on a novel by Nella Larsen and it focuses on the story of Irene (Tessa Thompson), a Harlem socialite who passes as white sometimes. Irene reconnects with a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who passes as white full time. The women have a chance encounter when Irene, while passing, takes a break from the heat in a hotel lounge and meets Clare. Their lives become entangled and begin to threaten each others’ carefully constructed existences.

Rebecca Hall has done a good job putting this film together. She has a good eye for detail. The black and white theme of Passing is made more resonant by the choice to use black and white cinematography. It makes the film look stark, but it also illuminates the skin tones of the lead actresses. The film, which is set in the 1920s, has a distinct old Hollywood movie feel. Both Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga approximate the cadences and speaking styles of actors from that era. Negga, in particular, really surrenders to her character and brings a vibrant and complicated woman to life. Negga’s performance displays exactly what her character, Clare, brings to Irene’s regimented and unsatisfying life. The costume designs deliciously evoke that era and enhance the status of each character, particularly in the use of hats early on in the film. Passing is well-composed and the visuals really enhance the story.

My quibbles with Passing may stem from the novel itself – I don’t know, I haven’t read it. There seems to be a loss of focus on the through line of the plot, which should be about race in society and identity, in general. However, sometimes characters do things that are not clearly explained by the movie. In fact, there is a point where you may not understand whether these two women are friends, were friend or why they would have ever been friends. In my opinion, the film tends to lose focus and it becomes less about the complications of living as a white woman when you are black and more about other subplots that aren’t as interesting. On the other hand, the movie is roughly 90 minutes, so it doesn’t over stay it’s welcome. And that’s just fine with me.

S2S: Official Rating Scale

What I’m saying is that Passing is a worthwhile viewing opportunity. The themes of the film feel important and they are usually told well, even if there are unfocused, or confusing, bits. An unfortunately, I think that some viewers may find the movie a little boring. It is a good looking period piece, especially with the black and white cinematography and the 1920’s costumes. I would suggest a bowl of popcorn for this one as you check it out in your Netflix queue.