“Passing”: Rebecca Hall’s Adaptation of Nella Larsen Novel Questions How We Understand and Embody Race

This is one in a series of reviews from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, during which I focused on films directed by women; you can find my other Sundance 2021 reviews here.

Sundance 2021: “Passing”—Rebecca Hall’s Adaptation of Nella Larsen Novel—Questions How We Understand and Embody Race
Still from Rebecca Hall’s Passing, starring Ruth Negga (left) and Tessa Thompson. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Do yourself a favor. When you watch actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing for the first time, be prepared to really listen—and not just to the dialogue, although it’s as incisive as in Nella Larsen’s original 1929 novel.

No, you also need to listen to the way ambient sound is used in this film, with such felicity and precision that it becomes a character of its own. Combine that with the astute use of black and white film and a 4:3 aspect ratio (standard for classic Hollywood films from the 1930s to the 1950s), and this film tells a subtle yet powerful story about what lingers between words, what passes between looks, and how the unspoken can become unbearably loud.

As with the book her film adapts, Hall chronicles a series of encounters between childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) who reunite after a chance encounter. Both women are light-skinned Black women (of mixed race, although the film doesn’t discuss this explicitly in the way the book does). Clare has elected to pass as white, having married a white man who knows nothing of her family history and who openly states how much he “hates Negros.” Irene can pass, but only does so occasionally, “for convenience,” she explains; she has married a Black man, a doctor, and they live a comfortable life together in Harlem with two young sons.

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When Irene and Clare unexpectedly meet after a decade-plus apart, the dialogue, sound and how the women occupy space renders their differences in striking contrast despite growing up in the same segregated Harlem neighborhood.

To escape the summer heat, Irene retreats from a day of shopping to a hotel’s tea room, where she would certainly not be allowed as a Black woman in the 1920s. She is impeccably dressed and yet furtive in movements, wary in the hotel’s elegant surroundings although she may look perfectly suited to them. She focuses on the glasses clinking at neighboring tables, the whisper of voices, the rush of breath—her own. When Clare enters on the arm of her white husband, she moves freely through the room; whereas Irene is utterly consumed with every glance and whisper, Clare seems content to only see and hear what she wants. 

These understated and yet profound differences in how Irene and Clare inhabit the world are performed beautifully by Thompson and Negga. They are also framed so adeptly that it sometimes felt difficult to pull myself out of the ambient—sound, lighting, focus, movement—and back into the narrative.

But the narrative is rich, too, and well deserving of equal attention. I found particularly arresting the way Passing handles the intersections of gender and race in relation to marriage and family, made manifest in Irene’s sometimes-strained relationship with her husband Brian (wonderfully played by André Holland). In one scene, the couple argues about how much their sons should be told about Black men being lynched in the news—still an unfortunately current concern for parents. Brian insists on telling his children the truth; Irene wants to shield them, maintaining the illusion of safety in her upper-middle-class bubble just a little longer.

Hall’s adaptation hews closely to its source in many ways, but also brings critical moments into a modern register. In doing so, Passing reflects on not only colorism, race and class, but also visibly queers the tension between Irene and Clare in ways that remain undercurrents in the book. By the time Irene asks, rhetorically, “We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?” the film has made clear that she may not only be questioning her racial identity. The attention paid to fingers brushing or the quick and uncertain breaking of eye contact after its been held a beat too long adds a layered and welcome patina of complexity to these two women’s relationship—already colored by affection, love, kinship, jealousy, betrayal and ambiguity.

Sundance 2021: “Passing”—Rebecca Hall’s Adaptation of Nella Larsen Novel—Questions How We Understand and Embody Race

Nella Larsen, author of the 1929 novel Passing, photographed in 1928. (Wikimedia Commons)

Irene begins the film seemingly content with her life. She has a successful husband, two children, and fills her time with charity work for the Negro League. She even as a maid of her own, who is also Black—darker than Irene and working class, a point of contention that Irene tries hard to ignore.

“I have everything I’ve ever wanted,” Irene tells Clare, a refrain that plays like a leitmotif throughout the film, taking on different timbres as different moments. 

Irene’s continued encounters with Clare cause small fissures to form in her carefully wrought façade of contentment. Irene becomes nervous for Clare’s safety as the latter begins to attend events in Harlem, mingling with Black and white folks alike, any of whom could identify her as Black and reveal her secret to her severely racist husband. Clare treats everything like a flirtation and a game, a different kind of self-preservation.

While Irene’s concern for Clare seems genuine, so are her feelings of resentment and envy; she fears also for herself and the disruption Clare has caused to her idyll. Irene used to think she was happy, but that starts to change.

“I’m beginning to believe that no one is ever happy, free or safe,” Irene admits midway through the film. Clare’s magnetism, after all, has two poles, as the film’s inevitable end bears out.

During the Sundance Q&A, Hall clarified how shooting in black and white was a “conceptual choice…to make a film about colorism that drains the color out of it.” While Hall herself is white, she had a white-passing, mixed race grandparent whose experience led her to Larsen’s novel and to her own questioning regard the constructions and embodiment of racial difference. She has been wanting to make this film for over a decade.

A stunning and layered adaption that asks complicated and prescient questions, I suspect Passing is one of those films that will benefit from and require repeat viewings to truly mine its depths.

“This is a story of nuance and gray areas,” Hall explained. It “asks you to hold something and its opposite at the same time.”

At the time of this writing, Passing had not yet finalized a distribution deal; however, Variety recently reported that Netflix is in talks to distribute the film. 

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.