9/10 Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is here in Passing, and it’s a doozy.
Harlem, 1920s- Reenie Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a black woman nervously passing in a white part of town, runs into her childhood friend, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga). Bellew, who is also black, passes in her private life, effectively living as a white woman and even taking a virulently racist husband in John (Alexander Skarsgård). Clare Bellew misses her Harlem roots and develops an immediate attraction to both Redfield and her husband, Brian (André Holland), and progressively begins to invade their lives as one of many white tourists in the historically black neighborhood.
You can immediately recognize Passing with a single glance at almost any frame of the movie. In addition to the greyscale, Hall and cinematographer Eduard Grau went with lomo anamorphic lenses and a Spanx-tight aperture, creating a shallow focus that often wanders around the frame with Redfield’s perspective. Outside the focus, the bokeh seems to warp around the center of the frame as if orbiting a vanishing point whenever it isn’t the center of Redfield’s attention.
They frequently employ dresses or window shades in the extreme foreground, the types of set details that are usually zoomed past, blurring the edges of the frame even further. The film is clearly enamored with its distinct look and isn’t above losing focus for a few seconds as they play around with the lenses.
Thompson and Negga are both light-skinned black women, and in greyscale, their skin is the same shade as the Stockholm-born Scarsgård, but they still have hair and facial features that would generally be associated with blackness. One immediately wonders if racial recognition has evolved completely differently in this black-and-white world, and if there’s a completely different set of hallmarks racists look for when trying to assess a person’s background – of course, this all runs head-first into the fact that race is a made-up concept with almost no basis in biology, a fact that Passing points out by its nature.
In Passing’s first scene, John Bellew relaxes with his black wife, whom he calls a racial slur as a pet name, on his lap, and tells the black guest in their hotel that he hates black people and he doesn’t know any personally, and it’s the Wild West from there. A big part of the movie is watching these women who are obviously black to me as a viewer either actively using whiteness or just existing in dangerous spaces and never knowing if they’re being clocked because you don’t know what it would take to give them away.
Part of me regrets not seeing this in theaters just because the visuals are so striking, but I’m also glad I get to watch this with subtitles and rewind ability. The story is just as complex and unique as the framing, which is reportedly part of what drew Hall to the story.
Passing is one of those talkies in which nothing seems to happen even as it goes completely off the rails because most of the tension is either unspoken between the characters or subtextual conflicts that you have to be aware of to understand the movie, but that never hit the screen. The core conflict in is philosophical – Bellew proudly embraces and wields her racial and sexual ambiguity, at least proudly in a ‘20s context, but Redfield, who also passes easily for white and also seems to be queer, flees. She repeatedly insists to her husband that their children don’t need to learn about racial violence, in response to which he changes the subject to their sparse sex life.
The conflicts don’t go unspoken, but they do go underspoken – characters never say everything they mean, so nothing gets resolved or really addressed, just the peripheral issues Redfield is comfortable looking at directly, and none of this happens in public. What Redfield doesn’t seem to understand, and this is the core of her unhappiness, is she’s always passing for something. She’s always interacting with the assumptions of the people around her based in the racial and sexual dynamics and expectations she claims she can comfortably ignore, even if it’s only as a happy wife.
This is a masterful, ambitious, bold first go in the director’s chair for Hall, who teases out conflicts, negative and highly complex conflicts of absence and denial with both the self and society and a revelatory lead performance from Thompson. In an Oscar season that’s quickly filling up with backlogged pieces from well-established directors, Passing looks to be the outstanding fresh viewpoint.