October 14, 2021

VIFF 2021 | Rebecca Hall Tries 'Passing' in Black and White

"We're all of us are passing for something or other, aren't we?"
Ruth Negga Tessa Thompson Rebecca Hall | Passing Netflix | VIFF 2021
Vancouver International Film Festival
VIFF 2021—British actress Rebecca Hall makes her writing and directing debut in the sumptuously dreamlike adaptation of author Nella Larsen's seminal 1929 novella, Passing. Starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as childhood friends, Irene and Claire, who reconnect after running into each other while both "passing" for white, the film questions historical race relations and social progress through two very different Black women linked by their conflicted bi-racial identities.

Set in 1920s Harlem, the racial melodrama shot by Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau in stunning high contrast 4:3 black-and-white is accompanied by a haunting but minimalist piano score by Devonté Hynes. Its style harkens to the classic Hollywood period and a sense of Douglas Sirk-style glossy soap opera prestige. Hall was inspired by the material upon discovering her own family heritage of light-skinned Black family members from Detriot on her mother's side passing for white.

Co-starring André Holland and Alexander Skarsgård as Irene's more hardened doctor husband and Claire's racist white businessman husband, the ensemble cast sparkles with layered performances that highlight the high drama of the desegregated time superbly. Its subtext of gender, class, and sexuality in addition to race permeates the whole film in the moments unsaid with a lingering feeling of tension throughout.

How Hall realizes Passing's stark themes with a deep sense of nuanced internal struggle between its quietly simmering Black characters is a revelation while still being wrapped in a theatrical period thriller. Its themes of integration versus liberation and defiance in its conventional ideas about historical social and racial struggles feel both modern and old-fashioned at the same time.

Passing screened at the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the Contemporary World Cinema series. It also screens at the VIFF Centre starting October 29th and will be available to stream on Netflix on November 10th.

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