Actress Rebecca Hall wrote the screenplay and directs her first film in the astonishing yet awkwardly cold "Passing," now streaming on Netflix.
In early 20th Century America (circa 1920s), light-skinned African-American women would try to "pass" by as white folk in society, as a means to better their social position and status. The white men that they would attach to didn't know any better...to their ignorant minds, there were no "tones" of colored-people, so someone who could effectively "pass" as white seemed to go by unnoticed...or, in some cases, they would accept the lie as not to have to accept their cross-race interests.
In "Passing," Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are stellar, as two old friends who bump in to one another as adults. Clare (Negga) though, is now "passing," and is married to her wealthy and deeply racist husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard). Irene (Thompson) is mesmerized by this, especially when John mistakes her for white and has a frank conversation with her.
Imagine the moral sacrifices one must make to essentially try to erase who they are. All of us put on some sort of "face" to some extent, but women like Clare must live with their lie at all times, even while watching as people of color are mistreated, abused and even killed around her. Under the intense glare and subdued scrutiny of her old best friend Irene, Clare must confront her choices and - perhaps - attempt to redeem herself.
Shot in black-and-white and featuring a beautifully haunting, mesmerizing piano score by Devonté Hynes, Rebecca Hall is not interested in anything more than her characters (the great Bill Camp also appears, doing great supporting work). This leads to a lot of dialogue, and a lot of unspoken interaction too. The result tends to make the film feel like a simmer, but one that never quite reaches its boiling point. Everyone here is doing fine work, but much of the importance of what Hall is trying to convey is lost with a cinematic approach that at first feels bold, but over time feels bland.
While the film is in black-and-white (underscoring the characters), oddly enough the cinematography is more modern, with handheld tracking shots and angles that you never would have seen had this film come out at the time it is set, in the 1920s. This creates a strange vibe, where on one hand you feel like you're watching an old, forgotten film about a corner of the universe that we've never quite delved into, while on the other hand it might have been made more effective if we weren't continually pulled out of the period with more contemporary filmmaking techniques.
"Passing" does showcase the incredible Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, and is an important story, but it falls short on many fronts of becoming an important film. For most moviegoers scrolling through Netflix, "Passing" will end up being a hard pass.
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes.
Starring: Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, Alexander Skarsgard, Andre Holland, Bill Camp.
Written and directed by Rebecca Hall (feature-film debut).
"Passing" is streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, November 10th, 2021.
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