Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are both superb in Rebecca Hall’s “Passing”.


You cannot take your eyes off Ruth Negga’s Claire, a Black woman who can pass for White in New York in the fading days of The Roaring Twenties. Not only can she pass for White but she lives as a White woman who is married to a racist White man (Alexander Skarsgard) and has a daughter who, thank the lord, was born White enough not to raise any suspicions.

Then there is Irene (Tessa Thompson) who can also pass but being slightly darker than Claire has decided to live her life as a Black woman. A cultured middle-class Black woman who is married to a Black doctor, (Andre Holland), has two handsome young boys, and lives in a lovely Harlem brownstone in a time of astonishing Black creativity; the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, from almost the first moment that we meet her, we feel that there is something missing from Irene’s life.

We meet her on a scorching summer afternoon. It’s 1929 and she has ventured out of Harlem into White New York to do some shopping. People are dropping like flies all around her so she decides, as she presumably does on some occasions, to “pass” and cool off with a cold drink in one of those gorgeous but “White-only” Art Deco hotels that line Central Park and Park Avenue. She likes to wear wide-brimmed hats which possibly help her pull off this ruse but also give her a boost of confidence. The hat divides her head in two, a vaguely cubist look, and she is always looking out under the brim like Bette Davis in” Now Voyager“.

The ruse works and she enters a magnificent air-conditioned lounge where the well-appointed patrons (remember, this is the summer before the crash) pay her no notice and the staff treat her well, like a White person. Sitting in the audience we feel, like Irene, that we have entered Heaven. And in this Heaven Irene sees a vision. A woman of such beauty and grace that both she and the audience are in a sort of delicious trance. And the woman is staring straight at her and smiling. The woman then rises from her chair and appears to be leaving but no, wait, she is actually headed for Irene who is completely flummoxed and does not recognize that it is her old friend Claire from high school who, granted, has undergone a few changes like dying her hair peroxide blond.

This opening sequence is so beautifully directed, photographed (Eduard Grau is the cinematographer and the lensing is in black and white or, more accurately, a thousand shades of grey) and acted that, at times, it literally takes your breath away and it is, in many ways, the highlight of the film.

Claire invites Irene up to her hotel room where they have a drink and Irene meets Claire’s husband who, not knowing that she is Black makes a couple of racist statements. Despite this, Irene stays for the afternoon and , as she is leaving, Claire asks her if she can visit her and immerse herself in the Harlem nightlife as a Black woman. Irene is reluctant at first. For all the admiration there is something overwhelming and smothering about Claire and also probably an unnamed attraction. And there is also Irene’s own life and the choices that she has made. There is one great scene at a party where the cream of Harlem are playing jazz and dancing. By this time many White people, knowing that by all the best and most innovative Jazz is coming out of Harlem (like The Cotton Club), were frequent visitors. Irene is standing next to a famous gay photographer (Bill Camp being deliciously, well, camp) who is modeled on the photographer Carl Van Vechten and her astute and witty observations give us a window into a different Irene, an Irene who, in another time, could have been a writer for Vanity Fair or The New Yorker. Although it’s Negga who gets all the of the film’s high points, it’s really Thompson’s story. We see the film through Irene’s eyes and Thompson is devastatingly good. And we gradually realize that Claire and Irene are different sides of the same coin: both are exemplars of the fact that it is often the things that you give up as you claw your way up life’s ladder that turn out to be most important.


Hall’s screenplay removes some of the opening chapters of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel which streamlines the story and her direction never falters on the way to its ferocious and ambiguous ending. Essential Viewing.


Share this post

You may also like…

The Treachery of Awards: Kristin, Gillian and René Magritte

The Treachery of Awards: Kristin, Gillian and René Magritte

When a great actor like Stewart or Anderson gives a great performance like Princess Diana or Lilly Bart, and that work is not recognized, or, at least, not recognized to the degree that it should be, there is a cognitive dissonance of the type you get when you gaze at Rene Magritte’s 1929 surrealistic masterpiece “The Treachery of Images “and its three way paradox of image, words and objects.

read more


Voted on by hundreds of actors, most of whom are too busy waiting tables to see movies at all, and, if they do, their choice is EXTREMELY limited. Limited mainly to Friday night at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Anything even remotely off the beaten track will not be seen or even heard of. Hence the hideousness of what is listed below. End of discussion. Movies only.

read more
It is Hat-Trick, as “Drive My Car” wins Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) following its triumphs in  NYFCC and LAFCA.

It is Hat-Trick, as “Drive My Car” wins Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) following its triumphs in NYFCC and LAFCA.

With the announcement of the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) choices, ‘Drive My Car” has now won the Best Picture award from all three major critic groups. This is quite an achievement and with its additional awards for Best Director, .Best Screenplay and Best Actor, it now stands an excellent chance of being Oscar nominated for Best International Film, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay and to become the 11th Foreign Language Film to be nominated in the Best Film category following in the footsteps of…..

read more

Subscribe for the latest reviews right in your inbox!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *