Rebecca Hall’s Passing Says The Most In The Silences

Rebecca Hall’s Passing Says The Most In The Silences


Christine Jean-Baptiste
Montréal, Quebec

Passing opens on a busy street in 1920s New York. A mysterious woman (Tessa Thompson) is roaming through Manhattan. In this part of town, she anxiously hides behind a wide-brimmed hat covering half her face. It’s every bit intentional. When she later settles down in the grand tea room at The Drayton Hotel, she stays camouflaged among a sea of lily-white couples. As she people-watches, her eyes lock on an almost unnoticeable old friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), who blends in perfectly with the crowd.

In her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall takes on an ambitious adaptation of Passing, a 1929 novel written by Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen about two Black women who live parallel truths: one, Clare, is passing as white, and the other, Thompson’s Irene, envies the privileges that come with the act. When it first premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Passing was touted as a “psychological thriller about obsession, repression, and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities.” But the film is less potent than its subject matter. Instead, race identity in America is a soft whisper that is meant to haunt instead of educate.

Though both of these light-skinned Black women have shared a similar upbringing, Irene and Clare could not have grown further apart. Irene lives in Harlem with her two children and charming husband (André Holland), who is Black. Clare has dyed her hair blonde and lives partially in Europe with her daughter and racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård), who is white. After catching up over champagne in Clare’s suite, the dynamic between the two women tightens, emphasized by the enclosing camera shots. While Clare seems delighted to be reunited with an old friend, Irene appears hesitant and reserved. It doesn’t make Irene any more comfortable when Clare says dating a rich white man is “well worth the price,” implying that she’s comfortable passing as a white woman and benefiting from it. Or when Clare’s husband walks in, expressing his gratitude for Clare’s “whiteness.” Irene soon realizes that her childhood friend was now someone with a secret, because the man who hates Black people so much did not realize his wife was one…

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