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The opening and closing shots for “Passing” hint at a more daring film than the one Rebecca Hall, an actress making her debut as a director, actually made. The first scene gradually highlights a world. The images are blurry, the sound is blurred. The camera point of view is a foot above the sidewalk, looking at the legs of people passing by. Gradually, the soundtrack becomes louder and clearer. The scene turns out to be that of a woman looking at another woman. Irene (Tessa Thompson) meets her old friend Clare (Ruth Negga) and she looks up to his face. In the end, the reverse happens. The camera moves back to a point where snow is blowing so hard on the screen that it almost obscures the scene.
Irene and Clare, two fair-skinned biracial women, knew each other as a child but lost to each other as a teenager. Clare now passes for white, living with a racist husband (Alexander Skarsgard). When he meets Irene, he also takes her for white and uses the N word in front of her. (Both women laugh, though the underlying anxiety is palpable.) Neither woman has to worry about money, but Irene, whose husband (André Holland) is a doctor, gets involved early in civil rights activism without recognizing its own colourist attitudes towards their servant. Irene and Clare are spending more and more time together, especially in Harlem nightclubs.
“Passing” is perhaps a little too good to capture the mood of repression. Even at its most dramatic, the tone is fairly calm. Hall lets cinematography speak for his characters. The fact that the film is in black and white, and framed in 1.33, alludes to its setting. It also expresses the ambiguity of the story in visual terms. Between the extremes of these two colors, a thousand variations between the two are displayed. His symbolic use of color can be obvious at times, such as when snow represents the power of whiteness in the final scenes, but at least Hall lets his images speak as much as his dialogue.
Based on a 1929 short story by Nella Larsen, who was a biracial woman, “Passing” was directed by a director who was perceived as white, in fact a rather classy British woman. She had to investigate her heritage as an adult to learn that her maternal grandfather was black. She said, “If I look at my mother now, I can clearly see that she is of African descent, but it was not clear to me when I was a child. She now sees the political dimension and the psychological pain behind the death in her family.
Racial overcoming is not the only kind of wardrobe that “Passing” explores. Irene and Clare seem to have some desire for each other. When they greet each other in a restaurant, Clare looks at Irene until they speak. It plays like a form of cruising – they may have a story, but the way the scene is filmed suggests a strong erotic charge. Their swift return to friendship, though publicized by the presence of Irene’s husband or other men, hints at the same, as do scenes like the one where Irene tells her husband she’s worried. that her son gets “weird ideas” about the sex of other boys. . Casting Thompson, whose partner is Janelle Monae and who rejects labels but says she is attracted to both men and women, reinforces this subtext.
Tessa Thompson wears makeup and dress to look glamorous by white beauty standards, with straight blonde hair and a pearl necklace. “Passing” refers to the plans for two black lesbian films, “The Watermelon Woman” by Cheryl Dunye and “Mudbound” by Dee Rees. All three try to compensate for the erasure of black people in classic Hollywood films. “The Watermelon Woman” states it explicitly, showing a video store employee researching a black actress who played servants in the 1930s and 1940s and discovering a lesbian life that contradicted her submissive appearance onscreen. “Mudbound,” also produced for Netflix, plays as a black counterpart to William Wyler’s version of 1940s America in “The Best Years of Our Lives”. His style may be classic, but he speaks from a point of view, taking inspiration from the life of Rees’ grandparents, who was excluded from Hollywood at the time.
The direction of Hall’s actors brings out a mannered speech rhythm reminiscent of 1930s movies. She says, “Part of the concept of this movie was to turn it into a 1930s tall black woman focused on women, which ‘It should have been if Hollywood studios had made black people with black female roles in the 1930s. That was the genesis. The fantasy of discovering this lost film that could have existed in a better world.
At worst, “Passing” confuses opacity with subtlety. For a movie based on an acclaimed book, its screenplay is its weakest aspect. The characters are finely drawn. In its first half, “Passing” lays out the contours of Irene and Clare’s life, particularly Irene’s barely acknowledged dissatisfaction, but the rest don’t do much to flesh them out. It depends too much on pauses and pregnant looks. “Passing” tackles a range of themes without going into any depth, although at least it trusts the viewer to weave their way through deeply loaded territory.
WHO PASSED | Directed by Rebecca Hall | Netflix | Opening at the IFC Center on October 27e