Ever since I was a kid and my dad first showed me Eddie Murphy dressing up like a White man in the hilariously ballsy 1984 Saturday Night Live sketch “White Like Me” – a take on John Howard Griffin’s iconic non-fiction book Black Like Me – I thought it would be interesting to also watch this scenario done realistically. In the skit, Murphy cheekily “uncovers” how White people treat one another when no Black people are present, which includes giving out free bank loans and having parties on public transit (these things don’t actually happen by the way). Of course, the world witnessed more whiteface fiction in the 2004 Wayans brothers movie White Chicks, also exaggerated and played for laughs.
But now, with Rebecca Hall’s writing and directing debut, Passing, based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name, we’re promised a more realistic and thought-provoking portrayal of an actual aspect of history, the title itself referring to the concept of light-skinned Black people “passing” as White to escape racial bigotry. Unfortunately, the premise is forgotten about almost as soon as it’s introduced.
Passing follows two Black women in 1920’s New York. Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in Harlem with her husband, Brian (André Holland), and their two children and is as satisfied as she can be with her life there. But one day, after trying to pass for the first time in a White neighborhood sheerly out of curiosity, she spots a former schoolmate from Harlem, Clare (Ruth Negga), who’s also passing. Except for Clare, this is her entire life. She’s married to an openly racist White man (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no idea of her true skin color. For Clare, she made a desperate move to eliminate all of the inequities she was facing as a Black woman in the early-20th century.
Seeing Irene opens up a door for Clare, who, it turns out, misses her Black culture very much. After much pushing, she aggressively makes her way back into Irene’s life, attending her parties, playing with her children, and befriending her neighbors and friends, who all seem to idolize Clare for one reason or another, perhaps due to her perceived exoticism, living life on the other side. But outside of the opening sequence where Irene tries passing for the first and only time, we never experience the tensions that would have come with someone who was actually passing for another race.
Passing is not a story about a fly on the wall of White society during a time of extreme prejudice and segregation, but of a Black woman’s personal issues when her friend who has assimilated into White society comes back and appears to usurp her life. What’s more peculiar is that Irene’s community of Black people in Harlem never seem to respond to the fact that Clare has made herself to look like a White woman, with her bleached blonde hair and powdered skin.
We also never hear these onlookers comment about their own views on passing; whether they’re for it or against it. Now that I think of it, we never hear them comment about anything unless it’s to flatter Clare.
The only character able to offer any grounded insight on Clare’s situation is the White novelist Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), who seems to be the only person in Irene’s circle who doesn’t care much for Clare (and may be “passing” himself). But Irene’s circle of Black friends almost exclusively avoids the topic, unanimously embracing Clare as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl she’s constructed to be by our filmmaker. However, the lack of pushback against Clare fails to justify any of her immediate insecurities. It would have been more effective had her character been peeled back just a tad more, even though that would only ruin her enigma.
A story like this implies a sort of narrative balance, which the director is only able to achieve aesthetically. The film is shot in black and white, with Hall, along with cinematographer Eduard Grau, employing deep chiaroscuro, extreme rack focuses, and other artsy flourishes of the camera. It’s here that Hall inadvertently establishes a unique visual identity that will end up becoming more of a takeaway from the film than a promising premise that should feel a bit louder than it does here. The director doesn’t destroy the material with her genteel touch, but simply prevents it from leaving a lasting impression.
Hall remains almost too faithful to her source, attempting to include every last iota of subtext which can’t all possibly get unpacked properly, thus rendering the themes and tension indistinct. The result is something schematic, perhaps intentionally so, but these little complexities are delivered far too ambiguously that they can hardly count as canon. And so, the film essentially becomes merely a single note surrounded by ham-fisted nuance for brittle texture.
A story this fascinating and this important deserves a level of profundity that Hall simply cannot provide. Heck, Spike Lee’s 1988 commentary on modern-day colorism and inner-race tensions in his sophomore film School Daze says more about Irene and Clare’s dynamic than their own movie does. Ambiguity works well for a novel, but not necessarily for a movie. To imply that a story written nearly a century ago is immune to change is to ignore the very evolution of storytelling that’s transpired in that same time – or at the very least, the fundamental differences between cinema and literature.
Even when adapting The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson made big adjustments with the pacing and the perspectives. So when a story as valuable as Passing falls into your lap, your priority should be to mold it in a way that will resound the most, leaving the text behind when necessary.
Passing is a film with spectacular cinematography, but it’s largely empty because of Hall’s green direction that has difficulty merging the camera with what the actors are doing in any given scene. Leaning on her own preponderance of suffocating close-ups, she’s concerned more with framing than she is with blocking or ensuring that the actors aren’t projecting anything transparently – although without those transparencies, these motifs would have become even more buried.
While most of the performances seem misguided or telegraphed, including that of proven veterans like Thompson and Skarsgård, there is one standout. With the honest elegance and mystique that seems to channel the likes of Josephine Baker herself, Negga feels of that era with her demeanor and nails a style of talking and communicating that’s been lost to time; one that few modern performers can ever dream of capturing. Likewise, her haunting gaze pierces through the camera as she plays both femme fatale and ingénue simultaneously.
Thompson will undoubtedly earn praise due to the nature of the role and the artistic appearance of the film, but she feels awkwardly out of place in this period piece, with distractingly rhythmic line deliveries that make the dialogue feel starchy and caricatured, as though the actress watched too much TCM in preparation for the part.
Passing is one of those Oscar-bait pictures that checks the necessary boxes and guilts the audience into liking it because of its hyper-stylization and ostensible social commentary, but it’s not the best possible version of this concept. It’s certainly not the one anyone really thought they were going to get, unless perhaps they’ve highly familiar with Larson’s original story. Underneath all the unrealistic affectations and slow focusing is an intriguing story that would have held more insight had the aspirations of the script been of a similar level as the photographic posturing.