Review: Black, white and shades of gray in superb ‘Passing’

Review: Black, white and shades of gray in superb ‘Passing’

Seldom have the colors of black and white looked so beautiful cinematographically as in "Passing,", the impressive directorial debut by actor Rebecca Hall.

This film, however, is about gray shades.

This means that motivations, desires, and ambitions are more complex than the visuals in this film. It is set in Prohibition-era New York, and explores ideas about race, identity, and the toxic ripples from a painful lie.

Hall adapted "Passing" from Nella Larsen's 1929 novel. It examines two sides of racial inequality through a pair childhood friends who meet years later. Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson and Tessa Thompson play the two Black women. However, they make drastically different choices. One is Black, while the other is "passing", as white.

Director Hall finds the story of her grandfather's American grandfather, who was Black, but lived many years as white for much of his life, a deeply moving one. Although she grew up in Britain, she never met him personally. He died when she was just a teenager. But his story clearly had an impact on her life.

Irene Thompson (a doctor's wife, mother of two), is our first encounter. She lives in Harlem and shops on a hot summer day in Midtown. She is dressed in a gauzy hat and a summer dress (the Marci Rodgers costumes are amazing, especially the 1920s hats), and appears to use her hat's brim for protection.

She escapes the heat of a hotel tearoom and sees a wealthy couple from Chicago enter. His wife, wearing a chic blonde hairstyle, watches Irene as he leaves. She claims she knows her. Irene believes she is mistaken but the familiar laughter of Clare reminds her that Clare was her childhood friend from Harlem.

They get to talking and Irene boldly questions Clare if he knows that she is Black. He does not. Clare sits in Clare's suite and explains her decision: It's wonderful that you have money. She says that it's actually worth the price. She had prayed for nine months to have a light-skinned daughter (which she did). Clare insists that she has everything she ever wanted.

John, the husband of Alexander Skarsgard (in another villainous role), returns to the room. He turns out to be an infidel racist. Clare is called a shocking nickname, a private joke, and he denigrates all Blacks. Clare stares out the door as Irene rushes to leave, almost as if he is begging Clare to take him with him.

Summer becomes autumn (Hall, cinematographer Eduard Grau do an amazing job of evoking changing season without using color), and Irene has been neglecting letters from Clare. Clare suddenly appears on Irene's doorstep. She is so eager to be a part of Irene’s life.

Irene initially stands off, but soon she begins to relax -- she feels for Clare, something she doesn't fully comprehend. Soon Clare will be accompanying Irene, along with her husband Brian (also excellent), to Irene’s charity ball. Clare enjoys the chance to dance and laugh alongside Black people. Clare is more concerned about Clare's fear of her husband finding out than she is about this connection.

The ball scene with its joyful dancing and sparkly clothes is amazing. Jazz music by Devonte Hines provides an evocative soundtrack for Clare's headlong descent into peril. It ends with one of the most disturbing, yet still beautiful, endings this year.

Negga is heartbreaking because she seems to realize, despite her fun-loving exteriors, that the time is running out on her ruse. Thompson is captivating as a woman who, although her life is happier and more true than Clare's, has struggles, longings, and contradictions.

Irene, for example, won't let Brian tell their boys the dangers of being Black in America. There has been a lynching at Arkansas and he believes the boys should be aware. She believes that silence is the best option.

Clare has feelings for Irene that go beyond friendship. Her own complex feelings about race and class identity are reflected in her relationship with the household maid.

Irene is well aware of some of these complexities. Others are hidden beneath the surface. She may feel as though she is looking into a mirror when she looks at the dance floor packed with people and says to a friend "We're all passing for something or another, aren't they?"

"Passing," a Netflix movie, has been rated PG-13 "for thematic material and some racial slurs" by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 98 min. Three and a quarter stars out of four.

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