Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson stars in Rebecca Hall’s stylish directorial debut about racial identity in 1920s New York.

The 1929 novel ‘Passing ’ by Nella Larsen tells of two Black female acquaintances who, due to the light pallor of their skin, are able to “pass” as white at the height of the Jim Crow era. Its story unfurls in the marginally progressive environs of New York, where racism has become something of a game, albeit one that is still able to evoke great anger and violence.

This is not really a story about subterfuge or trickery – the idea that certain Black people have a way of getting one over their white oppressors simply by praying on blindness and ignorance. It’s more about options for survival and what it means for a Black person to enter into what is perceived as the promised land of white largesse and freedom.

Needless to say, this dizzyingly rich and layered novel – an inarguable 20th century classic – seems like a tough prospect for screen adaptation, its gorgeous prose beset with traps and tripwires. The narrative is straightforward enough, but the psychological motivations, the peculiarities of New York geography and the sweeping historical context mean that the intimacy at its core speaks to more unpalatable truths. Rebecca Hall has chosen to take on the book as her debut as writer/director, and manages to channel a decent number of its stark complexities as well as delivering an involving drama.

We join Tessa Thompson’s well-to-do Reenie as she decides to wet her whistle at a ritzy Manhattan hotel, where she is recognised by Ruth Negga’s glamorous and ostentatious Clare. The pair strike up a conversation, decide to decamp to Clare’s room for cocktails where it’s revealed that she has been passing as white as a way to transcend the limited social mobility afforded to people of colour.

She’s gotten herself hitched to a dapper gent who’s also a virulent racist (Alexander Skarsgård), so despite the smiles and the spritz, her life is in fact a ticking time bomb. Clare sees Reenie as the route back to her old life, but the combustible climate makes it an impossible journey.

Hall’s reflective and challenging film is formally stripped back and places much of the emotional heavy lifting on the shoulders of its two formidable leads. Negga, in particular, brings tragic Fitzgeraldian depths to Clare where vivacity and confidence only partially mask feelings of total isolation. The handsome black-and-white photography has been used to make the film feel old timey, but also serves to emphasise the central ruse.

Sometimes the filmmaking doesn’t quite do enough to elicit the requisite intensity from some key conversations, but it certainly lands its most important punch, which arrives at the devastating climax.

Published 29 Oct 2021

Tags: Alexander Skarsgård Passing Rebecca Hall Ruth Negga Tessa Thompson


The novel is a masterpiece of ambiguity, which could be tough to bring to a screen adaptation.


Impressive work from Rebecca Hall and her two leads, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga.

In Retrospect.

A tragedy that’s more squalid than it is grandiose, and is all the more moving for it.

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