Set during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, “Passing,” a new drama starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga and now streaming on Netflix, is a story of childhood friends whose bond is threatened when they reconnect twelve years after school.
Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, “Passing” begins as Irene (Thompson), the upper-middle-class wife of Harlem doctor Brian (André Holland), is approached by former schoolmate Clare (Ruth Negga) in the lobby of a fancy hotel on a steamy hot New York afternoon. “Pardon me,” Clare says, “I don’t mean to stare, but I think I know you.” At first Irene doesn’t recognize her old friend. It has been years since they’ve spoken and Clare, with her bleached hair and eyebrows, is almost unrecognizable.
They get caught up, exchange stories, but time has passed and the former friends find they have little in common. Irene spends her time working as a volunteer fighting for the rights of Black people in her community. Clare, on the other hand, has been “passing” as white. Her husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) is a loudmouthed racist who has no idea about his wife’s racial identity. “Have you ever thought of what you’d do it John ever found out?” Irene asks.
Sensing trouble, buttoned-down Irene isn’t keen to rekindle the friendship but the charismatic wild card Clare ingratiates herself into the fabric of Irene’s carefully cultivated life with devastating results.
Director Rebecca Hall has carefully reconstructed the era of almost a century ago with exquisite period details, beautiful black-and-white photography and old fashioned, boxy 4:3 aspect ratio to examine very current explorations of race, identity and societal position. Thompson and Negga inhabit that world as they both deliver nuanced, introspective performances that are never overwhelmed by the film’s high style or themes.
“Passing” is an elegant, quiet film that allows for the leads to fully inhabit the characters and explore the interpersonal undercurrents that keep the story afloat. A fine mix of craft and emotion, “Passing” should appeal to the head and heart.