Passing – review

Brief synopsis: In 1920’s America, a couple of mixed-race women get reacquainted, having not seen one another since high school. One of the women is married to a white man and passes herself off as white. The other embraces her black side, her family life in Harlem. 

Is it any good?: Passing, a directorial debut from actor Rebecca Hall, is a bit of a disappointment. From a book of the same name, the film promises more than it delivers. With so many subjects to explore, Passing barely skims the surfaces of them, the film a frustrating viewing experience. 

Spoiler(ish) territory: Irene (Tessa Thompson) is shopping in New York. It is the 1920’s. Emancipation has been a thing since the beginning of the century nevertheless, black people remain second-class citizens. 

A pale mixed-race woman, Irene nervously shops amongst the white people. None of them notice that she is not white. It is the height of summer in New York, the heat oppressive. 

Irene visits a hotel bar for a cool drink. The patronage is all-white; she feels out of place. A young couple comes into the bar. The woman is blond and pretty, her partner fawning over her. 

The man leaves her, going to the bathroom. Irene looks at the woman, who catches her looking and stares back at her. The woman approaches, calling her name. 

Irene does not recognise her. The woman begins to laugh. It’s Clare (Ruth Negga), an old high school friend. Irene had not seen her for over a decade. 

Clare is passing herself off as white. Even her husband does not know she is mixed. Clare has a daughter that, thankfully, came out pale of skin. Mistakenly, she thinks Irene is doing the same. 

Irene explains that she is still living in the same neighbourhood. She lives in a black area. Harlem. She does not want to pass for white. Irene, isolated in white society, jumps at the opportunity to reconnect with the black life she grew up knowing. 

Final thoughts: Hall’s love for the source material is evident in the film. That is the problem. The script has little to no exposition, requiring Thompson and Negga to tell the story through their emotions and acting. 

As excellent as both actors are – and they are both very good – the film’s script gives them too little to work with. The ninety-eight-minute film is filled mostly, with Thompson’s not unattractive face, struggling to tell some type of story. 

It is difficult to know how faithful to the source material the film is. A book tends to lend itself more to an emotive experience. Passing is very emotive, tackling the prickly subjects of race, identity, class and belonging. 

Though Hall’s film is not long, it is interminably slow. The story meanders, the tensions that Negga’s character must have suffered are not evident at all. 

Thompson’s Irene, in contrast, has her own demons. Sadly, the script and minimal interactions with other characters do not allow them to show. Passing has gained some critical acclaim, which one can only believe is due to the subject matter it tackles. 

From a technical standpoint, the film is not great. It is in focus, yes, but some of the shot selections seem more indulgent than necessary. Shooting the entire film in black and white, whilst artsy, is a bit of a copout, the light coloured skin of both actors leaning towards white for the viewer. 

The jazz club scene works well in the film, the energy leaping off the screen. Similarly, the concluding party scene has a buzz about it that, rather than contrasting with the rest of the film, shows up the slow pacing.

That Hall is an actor herself is evident in the performances from the cast. All of the actors bring strong performances. Ultimately, Passing disappoints because it had so much scope and promise. Not a terrible film but an unsatisfying one that is difficult to recommend.

The Second Act

It is said that with age and experience comes wisdom. I am not so sure that is true. I think that with age comes fear and apathy. The vigour of youth fading, realities of life constantly bashing one over the head, the dreams of creating a chapter in history remaining that; dreams.
The analogy of a chapter, a book, is relevant, even for those who do not read books, or see any worth in doing so. Let me elaborate.
The cover is hopeful. You liked the look of it, that’s why you picked it up. Further investigation – reading the back cover – will talk to your judgements: do you want to live through the chapters of this book or discard it or perhaps check it out at a later point? So many options. Just like in life, only difference is you started out as the book. You were perused, checked out at many various times in this library of life. The begin is intriguing, mildly interesting if not yet riveting. Then you move to the second act. You write the story. Even if you did not expect to.
The first people who saw you – unless you were unfortunate enough to be born to the sort of people who should never have children – were your parents. To them, you were an exciting novel, a cracking page turner. Day after day, a new adventure would befall them, taking them through every possible emotion, the pages turning rapidly. What a fantastic book! They need to share this. So what they do is, those damned fool parents, the imbecilic clods cart you off too the nursery. Not such a special book here. Loads of bleedin’ books here!
Some of these books have really nice covers. Pretty, new and shiny, screaming – literally – for attention. If you’re not that kind of book, you’re already falling behind, getting frayed at the edges. It okay though, there are plenty of other books to hang out with and when you get collected, you’re special again.
Bombshell. You’re parents have gone and got another book! It’s newer, noisier and – allegedly – more interesting. What can you do? Time to start writing some more pages, adding more chapters perhaps.
Getting older and, perhaps, a little repetitive. Maybe you need to write a different chapter, you know, where something different happens? Yeah! Genius! You’ll write the clubbing chapter and the drinking chapter(s) and the drug phase chapter(s)! So you do. So does everybody else.
Some were busier though. Some were writing parallel stories. Dual storylines! How had you never thought to do that? Apparently they had seen some of the more impressive tomes work like this. Oh. Did not know there were bigger books. Thought everyone had the same typewriter.
Well now you do know. Great. So the dual storyline is introduced. Can you…can you do that? Of course you can. You can write whatever you like. Bash away. So you write. And write. And write. The chapters still meander, coming back to a horrible familiarity. The rehash of previous chapters, description of near identical days, interactions, frustrations, celebrations.
You cannot of run out of things to write, can you? Have you? There has to be more. You cannot publish this! Even your own family won’t read it! You got a beginning, you know the end. You need to edit the middle; the second act. Otherwise you are going to have a very underwhelming epilogue .