Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga two-hander Passing is one of the showier pictures of Sundance in 2021. Adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1920s story, it’s a film about two women who’ve found themselves down radically different paths. Irene (Ruth Negga) approaches Clare (Tessa Thompson) as they dine. Clare hardly recognises her from when they grew up together, but Irene has chosen to pass as white. The two women, who came from the same place, find themselves on opposite sides of a vague racial line, one that they may cross as they enter the adult world due to their lighter skin.
Passing isn’t a film about code-switching, as some critics have said. Once Irene chooses to pass and live as white, she has made a choice to stay in another part of society. She can’t just go back and visit her old life, cannot be recognized as having grown up Black, as she’s committed to the white socialite class she plays as. She’s had a kid with a white man, and comments that she’s lucky her ancestry didn’t show, while Clare’s husband is darker than her, and she’s been comfortable living a higher-class life that Irene didn’t think she could have if she stayed being viewed as Black.
Ruth Negga has this Josephine Baker-like screen chemistry, and her restraint at straddling two worlds however briefly is well played. Both lead performances are absolutely fantastic, and come awards season, Netflix should be hard at work at making sure they’re paid they’re due. Every turn of emotion, nearing manipulation in the jealousy, is a wonderful interplay between their acting strengths.
The relationship between the two women straddles the line between sapphic desire and an envy for the places they’ve each found themselves in. Irene longs for what Clare has in not having to hide who she is and her past, and Clare longs for more nights like the one where she, just once, tried to pass as white. Getting a taste of Irene’s life, by passing for white she’s viewed as equal by so many she hadn’t before. The tumultuous foursome of the two women and their husbands pulls both of them between worlds, blurring the line at the hardened choice of whether or not to pass, which is dangerous. Their desire is firmly rooted in the past, memories of gestures of young love back when they were seen as the same by their world.
Rebecca Hall, who chose to adapt the story due to having some Black heritage, yet is not viewed as a person of color, asserts herself often in the film’s Sundance Q&A, often speaking over Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. While this is her film, this attitude calls her intentions into question, as to whether this is an adaptation made just to pass on the story, or to conflate being Black and choosing to try and commit to passing as white to finding out one has a Black ancestor. The behind the camera politics are messy when a lifelong white-passing woman chooses to adapt a story of racial conflict, and center the conversation around her experiences. Aside from this, the other glaring flaw here is the editing. Eduard Grau‘s cinematography frames some gorgeous, fluid compositions that look straight out of a perfume commercial, but the editing also looks fresh out of the advertising world, choppy and accelerated to fit in a time slot. With some room to breathe in the edit room, Passing might look a little less cheap, though its lavish setting does it’s best to help.
What feels irresponsible is how the racialized violence ramps up. We are lulled into this gorgeous scenery and psychological tugging, but we aren’t expecting this to be about white violence past its omnipresence. It does root the point that this concept of passing comes with a permanence, and a danger, but the final scenes of the film are quite jarring. It’s also quite hard to see how the film would work in full color, especially as the characters’ ability to pass, specifically Clare’s, is helped by the ambiguity of the grey scale. Netflix has done right to pick up a film that, when presented properly, starts a great conversation about the notion of passing privilege, and how this older concept translates to today, but this is a conversation that needs to be supplemented outside the film.