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Passing— the book and the new movie

Passing is Rebecca Hall's first outing as a filmmaker and a remarkably timely adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel. The title — same for film and and its source — refers to a light-skinned Black person's crossing the color line. The practice goes way back in America's history, but it was in its heyday during the jazz age era in which Larsen's novel is set.

Though the popularity of "passing" faded by mid-century, stories about light-skinned women who were "passing" continued to fascinate successful writers like Edna Ferber, whose novels were often adapted for the screen. Her Showboat became a hugely popular movie musical and then moved to the Broadway stage. Fannie Hurst’s 1944 novel Imitation of Life was twice made into films. Pinky, a 1946 movie, originated with Sumner Cid Ricketts. It too was a hit though the casting of a white actress (Jean Crain) to play its mixed race tragic heroine prompted considerable controversy.

Unlike Ferber and Ricketts, Neila Larsen was herself a woman of color who actually experienced the same social milieu as the characters in her novel. Rebecca Hall, the novel's current scriptwriter/director, also has a forebear who passed— her maternal grandfather. She clearly saw Larsen's storytelling within that milieu as still being well worth filming in order to entertain and be relevant for people living in today's Black Lives Matter world.

Hall opted to stick to the novel's plot as well as its structure, which unfolded the story from the reflective, internalized viewpoint of Irene Redfield, Larsen's main character. But while Redfield is the main character, Clare Kendry, the childhood playmate who comes back into her life courtesy of a chance encounter, is as pivotal to the plot as Irene. Thus, capturing this inner-thoughts-focused narration to work as a powerful drama was quite a challenge. But Hall has managed make the most of that challenge, so that both women have a chance to be fully realized characters; and the people in their lives can do their part to turn this inner-thoughts-focused story into an exciting to watch, thought provoking psychological thriller.

If you read the book before watching the movie, as I did, the climax towards which Irene's mounting sense of danger builds won't come as a surprise. Yet, watching the terrific Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga jump off the page. to the unfussy but evocative screen set nevertheless kept me enthralled. Besides fine tuning outdated details, the film showcases Larsen as a Black writer who innovated the handling of racial issues through fiction rather than as a didactic polemic.

The issue aspects of "passing" revolve around Irene' s and Clare's approach to using their light skins to do so. For Irene it's strictly an occasional convenience, as when she's overcome by heat during a visit to Chicago and goes to a strictly segregated hotel tearoom to cool off. For Clare, who happens to be there, it's a permanent masquerade as the wife of an avowed racist who would be appalled to know her full background.

However, Hall has layered her script to also reveal the broader applications of dual identities and attitudes. This is amusingly evident in a conversation between Irene and her friend Hugh (the always excellent Bill Camp) at the Negro Ball she chairs and he supports. He makes fun of his wife's delight at dancing with an handsome Black man but obviously covets him as much as she does, which prompts Irene to comment "We're all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?"

Andrew Holland, as Irene's husband Brian, deepens the attitudinal borders between his wish to escape their life in a racist country within which she's created her own world. With Clare's making herself part of that world during her husband's frequent absences, Irene's tranquility becomes increasingly fragile.

While making Clare's husband an extreme racist is a somewhat too convenient contrivance, Aelxander Skarsgard does bring a touch of humanity to the melodramatic climax that his racist persona inevitably causes.

To conclude, a stunning filmmaking debut for Hall and bravura work all around. And, if you decide to read the book (it's a quick read at under 200 pages), it's easily available to read digitally. The digital edition I downloaded to my Ipad, includes some wonderfully enlightening notes about things Hall changed for the movie; for example, in the book, Irene and Brian sleep in separate room but not because of any sexual estrangement but because that was common practice back then, actually a symbol of being part of a prosperous class.

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Direction and screenplay by Rebecca Hall
Based on Passing by Nella Larsen
Ruth Negga as Clare Kendry; and in her other world as Clare Bellow
Andre Holland as Brian Redfield
Alexander Skarsgard as John Bellew
Bill Camp as Hugh Wentworth
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy as Felise, Irene's close friend
Gbenga Akinnagbe as Dave Freedland, a novelist and Felise's husband
Ashley Ware Jenkins Zulina, also known as Zu, the Redfield maid
Cinematography Eduard Grau
Edited by Sabine Hoffman
Music by Devonte Hynes
Distributed by Netflix
Running time: 99 minutes
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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