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A finely-wrought period piece with something to say by a new writer/director to watch. Netflix.


“We're all passing for something or other, aren't we?” Irene (Tessa Thompson)

Director Rebecca Hall’s successful full-length debut, Passing, shows her artistic inclination to depict women on the verge of breaking away. Irene is a Black woman in the 1920’s who could “pass” for white but just spends some time in the white world, being served and accepted in part because she is light skinned.

Now, her friend from her youth, Clare, consciously passes for white, and marries a racist who would kill if he knew his wife were Black. Although nothing shattering happens through most of the story, the racial divide is pronounced between White uptown and Black Harlem, where Irene and her husband, Brian, a doctor, live in a brownstone with a Black maid and the two children he tries to prepare for a racist world they have yet to overcome.

As Clare continues to mingle with Irene’s Black social life, Irene quietly assesses Clare’s free-spirit and seems gently attracted to Clare. Yet, those feelings are Hall’s quiet way of emphasizing the multifaced societal changes in a now truly-reconstructed way.

Hall uses a crisp black and white image to accentuate the stark racial differences and the sterile laboratory-like world of incremental societal change.  It’s also an effective period enhancer. The title “Passing” carries multiple meanings with the dark and light of good clashing with evil.

I couldn’t help thinking of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, himself an interloper having romantic notions ill-suited to a society he crashes with dire consequences. Hall has caught the ironies and ambiguities of a society in change.

It isn’t all pretty but generally a gorgeous palette with which promising neophyte Hall paints. Isn’t it the truth: “I'm beginning to believe that no one is ever completely happy, free, or safe”? Irene

One of the best movies of the year.


Director: Rebecca Hall

Screenplay: Hall from the Nella Larsen novel

Cast: Tessa Thompson (Creed), Ruth Negga (Loving Mildred)

Run Time: 1h 38m

Rating: PG-13


John DeSando holds a BA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English from The University of Arizona. He served several universities as a professor, dean, and academic vice president. He has been producing and broadcasting as a film critic on It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics for more than two decades. DeSando received the Los Angeles Press Club's first-place honors for national entertainment journalism.