Passing is a genre-buster, which heavily contrasts the very strict mores the film’s subjects live within. The film is an occasional Southern Gothic (set in 1920s Harlem), occasional character study Hitchcock homage. Harlem Renaissance society lady Tessa Thompson has a peculiar day when shopping for her son’s birthday; the sometimes very shitty white folks just assume she’s white. So, on a whim, she goes to a hoity-toity hotel to get out of the heat.
We have none of Thompson’s backstory or context at this point. Instead, director Hall guardedly introduces her to the film, then follows her, the camera as hesitant as Thompson in her whim. Once she gets to the hotel, however, things get real when she’s people-watching, and one of the people starts watching her back. When this other person approaches her, Thompson’s fear of being found out pervades the film, breaking her collected demeanor (which only happens a few times in the film and always echoes beautifully).
Except this person is Ruth Negga, and she knows Thompson, and Thompson knows her. But Thompson knows Negga as a fellow Black girl, not a vaguely Southern white lady with her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) in a ritzy New York hotel.
Negga’s thrilled to see an old friend, even as Thompson gets increasingly uncomfortable with the situation. Their impromptu reunion culminates with Skarsgård revealing himself to be an avowed white supremacist; we watch as Thompson experiences the awkward, problematic situation become grotesque. Understandably, she gets out of there as soon as possible, heading home to normality.
Normality is doctor husband André Holland, two sons (Ethan Barrett and Justus Davis Graham), a housekeeper (Ashley Ware Jenkins), and loads of charity work for the Negro League. The first act is set against Thompson preparing a charity ball. But, eventually, Negga will get herself invited, effectively inserting herself into Thompson’s life and home.
It’s Harlem Renaissance, so white people are touring north of the Park, meaning Negga can be seen without raising too much suspicion. After all, regular white tourist Bill Camp, who’s Thompson’s closest thing to an actual friend, is always around. In the second act, Thompson’s tea party for Camp will be another significant moment in the film and for Thompson.
While Thompson and Negga’s rekindled friendship only goes so far, with Negga less interested in society goings-on than taking Thompson’s roles in her home. Negga befriends housekeeper Jenkins, who Thompson treats curtly. Then, when the boys need someone to play with them in the afternoons, Negga joins them. The first act establishes Negga and Skarsgård have a daughter, and motherhood is on her mind, but pretty soon, it seems like she’s more interested in playing mom to Thompson’s kids, not her own. The motherhood theme is one of the film’s most subtle, but it does a lot of heavy lifting throughout.
The biggest change with Negga’s presence is Holland, however. He goes from thinking of her life as a curiosity to be ridiculed to being her most ardent supporter. Perhaps too ardent a supporter, especially as Thompson becomes more and more bewildered by Negga’s ability to exist in a state of constant deception.
The second half of the film becomes a psychological thriller without the thrills, instead focusing tightly on Thompson’s experiences and observations of her changing life. Holland wants their sons to be aware of white supremacist murders, while Thompson intends to keep them as sheltered as possible. Their fears and frustrations run underneath the surface, informing performances and events. It’s delicate, nimble work.
Because the film sticks to Thompson, Holland remains something of an enigma throughout, as does their marriage. The first act introduces them formed; there’s the perfect, party-throwing, party-going society couple, which Thompson contrasts with Negga’s mysterious, duplicitous, dangerous marriage. The film takes its time revealing more about Thompson and Holland’s marriage, relying on conversations and moods—and Camp and Thompson’s friendship—to fill in.
The third act is a pitch-perfect synthesis.
Passing is black and white, era-appropriate Academy ratio, beautifully photographed by Eduard Grau, with picture-perfect composition from Hall. It’s an urban fairy tale turned nightmare. Great patient, often lyrical cutting from Sabine Hoffman and a lovely, sometimes diegetic, sometimes not, sometimes maybe not score from Devonté Hynes.
After starting with a literal spotlight on Negga, Passing soon becomes Thompson’s film. The whole production hinges on her performance; both are a success. Thompson’s fantastic. For a while, her performance is reactionary—to meeting Negga again, to seeing how others react to Negga—but in the second act, Thompson stops getting fresh stimuli, and her performance essays internal experience, particularly of her status as a society wife and mother. The third act’s a mix of both styles, revealing even more about the character as events unfold. Thompson’s good in the first act, but it really does seem like Passing’s going to be Negga’s movie; then, starting from the inactive position, Thompson dominates the frame. So good.
Holland’s excellent, Negga’s really good, Camp’s really good, Skarsgård’s distressingly perfect in his part.
Great production design from Nora Mendis and costumes by Marci Rodgers.
Passing is spectacular. Hall, Thompson, and company do an outstanding job.
It’s so good I can’t even be sad Gbenga Akinnagbe isn’t in it more. I mean, I’m sad he isn’t in it more, but he doesn’t need to be in it more.