Passing looks like a daydream. Set in Manhattan at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the film is shot in sumptuous black-and-white. The soft focus of the lens distorts the frame’s edges. Hazy imagery—a fluttering curtain here, sunlight peeking through tree branches there—often fills the screen. And the story at the center appears mellow: Two women, Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), rekindle their friendship after years apart. Once playmates as children, they evolve as adults into each other’s confidants.
The relationship’s ease, though, is illusory. Irene and Clare are light-skinned Black women who can pass for white, but while the former rarely strays past the color line, the latter has crossed it entirely. Clare has dyed her hair a shimmery blond and shed her origins, to the point where even her husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), believes her to be white. Her secret transforms the women’s friendship into something stranger: a genuine but risky intimacy, built on their shared knowledge of Clare’s true identity.
Listen to an interview with Rebecca Hall, director of Passing, on The Experiment, a show about people navigating our country’s contradictions.
Based on the 1929 book by Nella Larsen, Passing, which starts streaming Wednesday on Netflix, is the rare film about race that treats the turbulence of its subject matter with a delicate touch. As much as the story may be about the effects of living in a racist society, not once does the movie depict physical violence by white characters. Instead, it draws tension from the psychological torment of two people who have taken entirely different approaches to their identity, each repressing elements of herself to survive. The film is told not through extravagant set pieces or scenes of emotional catharsis, but through meaningful looks and longing glances between the leads. Though tears are shed and tea sets get shattered, the real force of Passing comes from the anguish that Irene and Clare feel but can’t reveal.
Much of the credit goes to the first-time filmmaker Rebecca Hall, who’s best known for her work as an actor in thrillers such as The Prestige and The Town. Passing is a deeply personal project for her; in interviews, she’s explained that she began adapting Larsen’s novel after learning that her own Black grandfather had passed as a white man. But although Hall has said that writing the script helped her process her family’s history, the finished product doesn’t feel like the work of a debut director intimidated by a weighty premise. Instead, Hall seems to have grasped the story as a performer would, prioritizing the potency of the characters’ interior lives over the plot. And perhaps given her acting background, she draws from Thompson and Negga a pair of finely tuned and exquisite performances. In every scene they share, they radiate a tender but perilous chemistry.
The two women are seduced and repelled by how the other lives. They’re curious about and enthralled by—perhaps even attracted to—each other, but they’re also ashamed by their envy for what the other has. Irene believes that she’s taken the moral path, having married a Black doctor and settled in Harlem, yet she’s also drawn to Clare’s audacity and welcomes her old friend when she shows up at her doorstep. Meanwhile, Clare considers rewriting her history to be worth the cost of living a dishonest life; John is wealthy and respected, and she can go anywhere she likes as his wife. But her vivacity elides a desperation to immerse herself in the culture she abandoned. Each woman believes the other to have a kind of freedom and safety she cannot obtain.
Hall examines Irene’s and Clare’s duality with meticulous care and obvious compassion. She shoots the women using a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, making the frequent close-ups of their faces look even closer. Often the two are shown in the same frame or through mirrors, as if they could overtake each other or switch places at any moment. And Devonté Hynes’s twinkly piano score underlines the delicate nature of their intertwined lives. The film, through these graceful flourishes, suggests that the societal lines Irene and Clare believe are being blurred only sharpen as a result of their efforts. After all, race isn’t the only constraint that exists; there are also expectations for mothers, for wives, for women’s sexuality. Slowly, Passing reveals how Irene pushes the limits of her identity to bolster her social status: She snipes at her darker-skinned housemaid and gossips about Clare with a white writer who attends the Negro Welfare League parties she helps organize. Who’s the one betraying her identity more? Who actually leads the more dangerous life?
The tragedy of Irene and Clare rests not in the question of whether the act of passing is morally defensible but in the fact that neither can fully provide an answer. In 1920s America, a repressive world of social norms and niceties, they don’t have the words to express exactly what they feel. But Passing, in Hall and her cast’s deft handling of a relationship that’s equal parts relief and resentment, tells their story in the fragile silences they share.