The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/Netflix] - PASSING | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/Netflix] - PASSING

passing review
A mixed-race woman becomes reacquainted with an old friend, who now passes her self off as white.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Rebecca Hall

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

passing poster

While today you're arguably more likely to hear of white people trying to pass themselves off as black, for most of America's history the opposite was true. For obvious reasons, there was a time when mixed-race or light-skinned African-Americans would indulge in "passing", the practice of passing themselves off as fully Caucasian. The idea fuelled such literary works as Nella Larsen's 1929 novel 'Passing' and Fannie Hurst's 1933 book 'Imitation of Life'. The latter would be filmed a year later by director John M. Stahl, bringing its racial theme to the screen just before the Hays code put an end to such explorations. Stahl's film starred Fredi Washington in the role of a young mixed-race woman who passes herself off as white. Many cinema-goers of the era were said to be shocked to learn that Washington was partly African-American, though she never denied her heritage, an act that likely cost her greater stardom.

In its best moments, Rebecca Hall's directorial debut, an adaptation of Larsen's novel, plays like some lost pre-code movie from the early 1930s. It's played with the subtlety of an earlier age. It's a movie that carries a tissue clenched in its hand, lest it reveal its emotions. Unlike most modern movies that deal with the thorny issue of race relations, it keeps its cards close to its chest, much like its protagonists.

passing review

We meet our protagonist, Tessa Thompson's Irene "Reenie" Redfield, as she takes a trip outside her comfort zone of Harlem to mingle undetected in lower Manhattan's white society. Keeping her face covered by a hat lowered over her eyes, Reenie walks through the crowds like the hero of a zombie movie shuffling in secret among a horde of the undead. Blagging her way into a hotel's tea room, Reenie finds she's caught the eye of a "white" woman who stares her down from across the room. Turns out the woman isn’t white at all but rather Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), an old school friend of Reenie's. Like Reenie, Clare is mixed race, but while Reenie has chosen to live in the African-American enclave of Harlem, Clare has passed herself off as white and married into high society.

Clare returns to Reenie's life like a whirlwind, sweeping her off her feet before she has figured out whether she wants to be carried away. A forceful and determined figure, Clare brags of the life her deception has brought her, and encourages Reenie to do the same. Reenie almost seems to be falling for her old friend's undeniable charms, but charisma's just another word for trouble and Reenie is brought back down to earth by an encounter with Clare's racist husband (Alexander Skarsgard).

passing review

Reenie ignores various correspondences from Clare in the following months until she turns up at her home one day. As Clare possesses the sort of personality that doesn't allow for easy dismissal, she quickly ingratiates herself in the life of Reenie, and that of her doctor husband Brian (André Holland) and their two kids. Everyone around Reenie is initially suspicious of Clare, whom Reenie defends, but as Clare reels them in with her charms, it's Reenie who becomes increasingly troubled by her presence. Initially dismissive of Clare's decision to live a life of deception, Reenie seems to reevaluate the life she keeps telling herself, and anyone else who will listen, she's content with. And content she should be. By anyone's standards she seems to have it made, and compared to the average African-American of the 1930s she might as well be royalty. But food always seems to taste better when you take it from your fellow diner's plate, doesn't it?

Passing is a surprisingly cinematic directorial debut for an actor. Hall uses her limited budget wisely, perhaps even benefitting from a necessity for economical storytelling. It's refreshing that here is a film where nobody tells us what they're really feeling, that forces the viewer to read between the lines, to study the faces of its characters for glimpses of the truth. We learn Reenie's true feelings by the way she studies her reflection, how she stands on the edges of social gatherings, how she treats her maid with increasing coldness. Hall repeats the image of Reenie walking home on her middle class Harlem street, and this serves to both show the passing of time and the drudgery of Reenie's "contentment." Clare is more difficult to read. Her whole life seems an act, and the inability to figure out who she really is frustrates the audience as much as it does Reenie.

passing review

Along with telling her story in confident visual terms, Hall has mined a pair of equally stunning, but very different performances from her leading ladies. Afforded the showier role, Negga will likely receive the plaudits she deserves – it's a firecracker of a turn, one that recalls the charisma of the great actresses of the pre-code era, Stanwyck, Blondell, Hopkins et al. Thompson's subtler work may be easier to overlook, but to do so would be to miss one of the performances of the year. I'm not sure if we've been taking Thompson for granted or she just hasn't gotten the roles she deserves (likely a little of both), but I can't recall her ever being this quietly mesmeric.

Hall has made a very good movie in Passing, but I'm not sure if she's made a very good about "passing." Certainly, the 1934 version of Imitation of Life has more to say on the subject. Clare's passing only really figures into the opening and climax of the film. For the rest of the picture it might just have been a story of a woman who grows jealous of their friend's perceived superior social status and could have starred two white actresses with little alteration. Given Hall's own family background (her mother is the mixed-race opera singer Maria Ewing), this is an unexpected quibble.

Passing is in UK/ROI cinemas from October 29th and on Netflix from November 10th.

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