Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) walks deliberately through a toy store, shopping for her two children on an unusually hot day. Dressed in all white, Irene keeps her gaze low and her cartwheel hat lower, aware that no one in the store has recognized her as a Black woman. Just when the audience learns that Irene keeps a low profile to avoid racist treatment, Irene sits in the grand dining room of the Drayton Hotel, right in the view of a platinum blonde who cannot seem to look away. Irene tenses up until this mysterious woman says, “Of course I know you, Rene.”
The new film Passing, released Oct. 27 on Netflix, follows Irene and her childhood friend Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) as they navigate the world and their relationship with their racial identities in 1920s Chicago and New York City. Both are African American women, but Clare “passes,” presenting herself as a white woman, while Irene does not. The film—directed by Rebecca Hall—is a vibrant adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novella with the same title, which was published in 1929.
The opening introduces the crux of the film: Clare’s choice to leave behind her childhood in Harlem and pass as a white woman, leaving Irene to question Clare’s decisions and her own personal identity. The adaptation beautifully tells the story with bravura as it asks important questions about racial identity.
As the story progresses, Irene and Clare’s complex relationship unravels, as Clare begins following Irene around her Harlem neighborhood in hopes of reconnecting with her racial roots. The theme of colorism—discrimination against people with dark skin—arises when Clare is admired by Irene’s family, including from her faithful husband Brian (André Holland). What transpires is a rich series of dialogue that includes a jumbled mix of envy, second thoughts, and social politics.
The cast of Passing develops complex emotional dimensions for each character and offers viewers insight into the characters’ individual motivations. Thompson delivers a poignant performance as she communicates Irene’s conflicted feelings towards her old friend Clare and is a delight to watch on screen. Negga relies on an ostentatious vocal inflection and spot-on facial expressions to give the audience a persona that exudes confidence, a direct contrast to the more reserved Irene.
Finally, the steady directorial hand from first-time director Hall creates a gradual buildup of conflict in the film, but the pacing never feels sluggish as more details about the women’s lives arise. Hall holds each audience member’s hand, effortlessly guiding them from scene to scene as Irene’s and Clare’s stories unfold.
Featured Image Courtesy of Netflix