Sundance 2021: Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in Passing by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Edu Grau.

Actress Rebecca Hall marks her directorial debut with Passing as she beautifully adapts Nella Larsen’s Harlem-set novella for the screen.

When I found out that Rebecca Hall was making this film her directorial debut, I thought how is she qualified to tell a story about two Black women.  I never looked up Hall’s background before.  I would subsequently learn that her mother is opera singer Marie Ewing.  Ewing happens to be of a mixed racial background.  As such, Hall is perfectly qualified to tell this story.  Like Hall, author Nella Larsen also comes from a mixed racial background: a Black father and a Dutch mother.  Throw in a divorce and you can see how one can feel like an outcast in your own family.  While both come from different eras, both Hall and Larsen share similar backgrounds.

From an outside glance, Passing looks like it could be a tense drama.  Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) are two Black women whose skin color is light enough to where they can “pass” as white.  Even when living in New York, passing as white would prove to their advantage.  They might not be in the South but sadly, there’s no escaping when it comes to racism.  It just so happens that Irene and Clare attended the same high school after that is where their lives goes down a different path.

Irene finds refuge at the Drayton Hotel on a hot summer day.  While escaping the heat, Irene sees Clare.  Clare stops Irene from making what could be a mistake and the rest is history.  Again, the two are at different points in their life.  Clare is passing for white.  Much to our surprise, she is married to a racist, John (Alexander Skarsgård).  I know, right?  You cannot help but want to ask so many questions.  Meanwhile, Irene is married to a Black doctor, Brian (André Holland).  But when Irene sees Clare at the hotel, John naturally assumes that Irene is white.  The circumstances will change later on in the film, of course.

I can see why Clare makes the decisions she does.  I do not–for the life of me–understand why she decides to marry a racist.  By passing for white, Clare can choose to benefit when it comes to the social and economics equation.  It is unfortunate that the era’s racism is a determining factor.  I have no doubt that this will have a psychological impact in the future.  Regardless of Irene or Clare’s situation, they still live in a society where racism dominates.  Sadly, racism is still alive and well today in 2021.

I love what Rebecca Hall decides to do with the film.  She takes a novella, learns some more about Nella Larsen (thank you, David Bowie), and makes the film her own.  She also delivers a film in stunning black-and-white photography.  Edu Grau beautifully lights this film.  Black actors didn’t get prominent roles until the black-and-white era was winding down.  In this mindset, Hall helps right a wrong to an extent.  The 4:3 standard aspect ratio works beautifully, too.  It’s as if Hall takes us on a time machine to a changing era in Hollywood except we’re in New York.

I can relate the identity aspects of Passing in a way.  Now I could use this moment to discuss the whole argument over whether or not Judaism is a race or religion.  Believe me, this is a whole other can of worms.  There are country clubs that will not accept Jews as members.  I know because I spent plenty of time attending shul and JCC activities across from one.  But before go off on a tangent about Judaism, let me get back to my original thought on when it comes to gender identity…

I am a transgender woman.  Because of coming to terms with being transgender during my 30s, it meant that testosterone did its damage during puberty.  Sadly, estrogen isn’t able to undo a lot of the damage.  I’m not one to wear makeup but that’s mostly out of sheer laziness and not wanting to wake up any earlier.  But that’s beside the point.  Misgendering always sucks and triggers depression.  Lyft updated it’s app within the last few years to add pronouns and their drives still misgender me because of my voice even though I have my pronouns in the app’s system.  Because of this, I don’t like going outside by myself (during non-pandemic times).  This is because I fear getting attacked because of being transgender.  Unfortunately, my being Jewish also makes me a target.

Passing is a film that is successful in examining identity and the decisions we make.

CAST:  Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, and Alexander Skarsgård

Passing held its world premiere during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Netflix subsequently acquired the worldwide rights.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.