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Directed by Rebecca Hall
Written by Rebecca Hall, based on the novel by Nella Larsen
Starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga and André Holland
Classification PG; 98 minutes
Now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, opening Oct. 29 in Montreal’s Cinematheque and Vancouver’s VIFF Centre, and Nov. 3 in other markets; available to stream on Netflix starting Nov. 10
Arguably, a well-done adaptation is not one that renders with faithful verisimilitude the exact words and movements of its source material, but one that has the range and ability to translate the feeling and tone of its specific world. English actor-turned-filmmaker Rebecca Hall contends with this dynamic in her debut feature, Passing, an intriguing study of race, class and gender in late-1920s New York, based on the 1929 novel by Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen.
The film traces the stories of two Black women, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), both of whom have the ability to “pass” as white, to varying degrees and with varying intentions. Childhood friends who reunite via a chance encounter, Irene lives in Harlem with her relatively darker-skinned husband Brian (André Holland) and their children, while Clare has spent her adult life passing for white and is married to white businessman John Bellow (Alexander Skarsgard), with whom she shares a daughter.
Hall adapts Larsen’s words to the screen with a striking resemblance – entire passages from Larsen’s novel are envisioned almost verbatim. The slight changes and translations to the present day made by Hall’s screenplay are mostly concerned with plot, but also with conscientiousness. Larsen was intentional with her characters’ infrequent use of slurs in her novel, and Hall seems sensitive to that fact, making notable and thoughtful changes to crucial lines of dialogue.
Interesting, too, is Hall’s choice to shoot the film in monochrome. While Larsen’s book was set in environments of lush textures and tonalities, the film’s use of black and white sometimes threatens to empty out the spaces and figures we see onscreen. It renders the psychological ambiguity of the story on the visual plane, with the grey tones both confusing as well as emphasizing the difference in skin tones onscreen. An unmistakably deliberate choice, it is one that works best in scenes of intimate domesticity as well as in Hall’s often striking framing of Clare, but falters in sweeping exterior scenes and moments that call for the ability to place characters’ identities with specificity.
While Larsen’s Passing trades in such ambiguity, the novel is clear in its awareness of who does or does not hold the ability to make certain distinctions. It is a story that centres Black worldmaking and knowledge within a specific historical context. That Irene and Clare are able to pass is less a marker of their own shapeshifting abilities and more an indication of the lack of awareness of the white people who they are able to pass with.
In contrast, some of Hall’s cinematic choices quietly tug at the feeling that she has misunderstood the subjective and socially constructed nature of race as something to be applied too broadly, instead of rooted in the lived experience of racialized people – including those of her audience. Within this tension, too, is Hall’s choice to appoint herself the writer and director of this adaptation. There is a loud irony in a white director – albeit one who has spoken about her own family history of “passing” – taking on a story like Larsen’s.
What is it exactly that Hall contributes to this retelling that wasn’t already elucidated by Larsen? While the director has centred the interior lives of Black women and almost, but not quite fully, mapped out the constellation of desirability, jealousy, repression and intrigue that Larsen so adeptly and intricately executed, she has also centred herself here – and gained capital in doing so.
Although Hall’s Passing is one of the few films in cinema’s history to cast Black actors in such “white-passing” roles (one of the earliest and well-known examples of this exception being Fredi Washington in John M. Stahl’s 1934 drama Imitation of Life), the production also continues the history of white directors, however well-meaning their intentions, claiming ownership over Black stories.
That Hall would be drawn to this story and its parallels to her own family history seems almost inevitable. That she would nominate herself to the position of sole author of its contemporary adaptation – effectively inserting herself into Larsen’s carefully crafted portrait of Black ways of knowing, despite being aware that audiences would question her right as a white woman to do so – betrays the exact sort of well-mannered arrogance that Larsen wrote of.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.