Photo By: Noah Nickel via Netflix

*CONTENT WARNING: This article contains sensitive subject matter related to racism.* 

Passing is an intimate and sensitive story about race in 1920s New York with themes that are still relevant today. The film’s main theme is about identity abandonment and the pain that accompanies it.

The film gets its name from the concept of “passing,” which refers to when an individual of a minority race is able to “pass” as white. It is exaggerated in the movie, as one of the characters is able to pass completely as white, to the point that her racist husband is not aware of her race. Multiple times in the movie the subject of “if you can, why wouldn’t you pass as white?” is highlighted, which shows white privilege and Black struggle in a society that can push an individual to abandon who they truly are.

Originally premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the movie was released on Netflix on Nov. 10. Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 book by the same name, the movie is shot in black and white which gives another layer to the story’s message.

The movie has been nominated for Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Feature, and Best Screenplay. Rebeca Hall earned a Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award nomination, while Tessa Thompson was nominated for Gotham Independent Film Award for Outstanding Lead Performance and Ruth Negga for Outstanding Supporting Performance. 

Rebecca Hall, who has appeared in movies such as, The Prestige, Iron Man 3, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and A Rainy Day in New York, made her directorial debut with this film. Based on the number of nominations Passing has received, it was clearly a rousing success.

The movie starts off with Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), running into her childhood best friend Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) who is passing as white. Irene does not recognize her at first sight and the rekindling of their friendship proves painful for both parties involved. The audience can see the loneliness Clare experiences after leaving her identity behind. 

Irene also has her own set of struggles; the audience can tell how much she cares about Clare but after passing she is not able to connect with her the way she wants to, especially after being insulted by Clare’s husband.

The pace of the movie is slow, but not in a bad way. It is clear from the beginning that this is not a plot-driven movie but a movie about the characters. That is why the slow pace works so well, it creates intimacy. 

Passing thrives on its creative presentation. From the 1920s costume design, to the dialogue, and also the decision to film in black and white; the movie captures its time period incredibly well.

There are a lot of emotional moments in the story. For instance, there is a scene that resonates with me where Irene’s husband is telling their kids about a lynching that happened in another state. Irene then sends her kids to another room and argues with her husband about the whole discussion. This is a tough situation, how young is too young to know about racist atrocities? Is hiding reality from children the right decision? Despite the film’s period setting, these are questions still being wrestled with today.

Overall, Hall is successful with Passing in depicting the experience of losing one’s identity and the struggles it comes with. Given the incredible job Hall did in the director’s chair, coupled with the strong performances from Thompson and Negga that have them in contention for possible Oscar nominations, this movie is certainly worth a watch for anyone looking for a slower moving, yet powerful story.