Passing (Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga) Review (Sundance)

Passing (Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga) Review (Sundance)
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Sundance film festival 2021

PLOT: A middle-class African-American woman (Tessa Thompson) living in Harlem during the 1920s, experiments with “Passing”, where she passes as white one day in a crowded tea room. While there, she discovers that an old childhood friend (Ruth Negga) of hers has been doing the same thing for years, and lives her life as a white woman, with not even her husband aware of her true racial identity.

REVIEW: Passing is a strong directorial debut for Rebecca Hall, who seems on the verge of a second career as a major director. A delicate, beautifully done film, the movie examines the phenomenon of “Passing”, where black people could pass as white, allowing them to mingle freely in the very prejudiced white world. Back in classic Hollywood days, this was a common plot device, explored in movies like Pinky and Imitation of Life, and even in the more recent The Human Stain, with one caveat. The actors themselves were usually white (except for the bi-racial Wentworth Miller in The Human Stain - who shared his role with Anthony Hopkins), while Passing, at long last, explores this topic with black performers.

Tessa thompson, Ruth Negga, passing

Both Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are exceptional in their highly nuanced roles. Thompson is the refined Irene, who, for the most part, seems happy to live her life as a black woman, save for the occasional foray, which she says is “for convenience’s sake”. She seems to have it all, including a fashionable home, two kids, and a loving doctor husband (André Holland), but things aren’t as they seem. Meeting Negga’s Clare, who passes for white and even has a virulently racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård) awakens something in her. Suddenly, she’s withholding both physically and emotionally from her husband and seems more reluctant than ever to discuss “the race problem” with her family, even as her husband tells her it’s a reality they must expose their children to.

Thompson, who along with Negga, adopts the kind of clipped, Mid-Atlantic accent that was posh in that era, is exceptionally good as the repressed Irene, as her obsession with Clare grows (which, as suggested by the film, doesn't only have to do with her passing as white). By contrast, we see that Negga’s character suddenly comes to life as she starts to dip her toe back into Harlem society (this is based on Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name). They are a study in contrasts. Thompson becomes even more repressed while Clare is liberated, even if, given her situation, that’s a dangerous thing.

Both actresses are amazing in their roles, and Hall and her DP Edu Grau complement the reality of their situations with exceptional, black and white (1:33:1) cinematography, with Clare’s skin color taking on a different shade depending on who’s looking at her. When alone with Thompson, who knows her identity, she looks black, but when she’s with her husband or someone unaware enters the room, she suddenly looks white. The effect is well done.

While Thompson and Negga dominate, the supporting cast is good too, with Holland extremely sympathetic as Irene’s husband, who wants to leave America for a hopefully more accepting Europe, and also finds himself drawn to the buoyant Clare. Bill Camp has a nice part as a white author who’s friends with Thompson and Holland’s character and acts as her quasi confidante. Like the authors, he plays with the mid-Atlantic high-society accent, and he further proves his versatility. The only one who initially comes off as one-note is Skarsgård as Clare’s racist husband, but towards the end, he turns out to be a more nuanced character than he seemed initially.

Indeed, this is a beautifully acted and crafted film. While Hall herself may not seems like the kind of person one would choose to helm a project like this, appearances can be deceiving and she more than proves herself up to the task. Expect to hear a lot more about this one in the months to come.

Source: JoBlo.com

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