Racism in America is as foundational to the country as nearly any other fabric that stitches it together. The bedrock of the country was built on it and has morphed over the centuries to still keep hold on our systems.

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut focuses on two women who are able to pass as white in the late 1920’s. Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives  in Harlem with her husband, Brian (Andre Holland) and their two sons in a charming two story brownstone. As the film opens, she is trying to find a book for her son inside a white store. She rarely tries to pass for white, but in this instance, she must for her son’s birthday. There’s no problem. No one questions her or even suspects any different. To the white patrons of the store, she is one of them.

The act scares her, deeply troubling her to the point where she dips into a hotel to try and calm down. While there she runs into an old friend that she used to live with in Chicago, Clare (Ruth Negga). It turns out that Clare has been passing for white for years. Her entire existence has been carefully curated around that identity. She has a white husband that makes his demeaning thoughts on black people known to Irene.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Irene tries to distance herself from Clare, but Clare keeps finding ways to visit with her. At first it seems like Clare wants to connect to her past, embrace her racial identity and find some way to step out of her lie. With each successive interaction, Clare’s motivations become increasingly more questionable. Is she trying to wiggle her way into the sexual life of Irene? Steal Brian from her? Or is it all inside of Irene’s head?

Hall focuses on Irene’s paranoia, teasing it out while she watches the effervescent Clare become the life of every room she is in. Negga and Thompson both give deeply felt and powerful performances. Negga in particular has the kind of face and presence that would fit perfectly with the Harlem Renaissance period. Her persona feels like an old silent star of a bygone era. Hall knows this and gives Negga the opportunity several times to stare directly into the camera, piercing directly into the audience’s eyes.

There is no doubt that the material is thorny. The entire story is a minefield. Hall navigates the nuances beautifully, calling into light issues of class, sexual, racial, and personally prescribed societal constrictions. The black and white of the film is rich and textured, presenting a monochromatic world while the characters exist in anything but. Hall’s decision to shoot the film in 4:3 also constricts the characters, trapping them, unable to break free of their claustrophobia.

Passing is an extraordinary directorial debut. Hall shows a confidence and artistic vision that is assured and fully formed. She has long been one of our most reliable actresses, but this feature shows that she might have a long and complex career in the director’s chair.

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