Rebecca Hall's directorial debut, "Passing," premiered this past Wednesday, November 10th, on Netflix. Hall's cinematic interpretation is powerful and exquisite, especially the outstanding performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga.(See review by Odie Henderson at Rogerebert.com). In honor of its streaming release, I have compiled various articles about the picture in this special edition of Thumbnails. It's the sort of film you are guaranteed to want to discuss afterwards, and these articles will provide you with a great deal of food for thought. It is one of the few films in the industry partially financed by a group of African-Americans and Asian-Americans who bonded over their philosophical commitment to getting the film made. I am a member of that group, and joined as a financier and executive producer with Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker's Significant Productions. Also see my essay "The Freedom To Pass." — Chaz Ebert
"'Passing' Review: Black Skin, White Masks": A glowing review from veteran film critic Manohla Dargis at The New York Times.
“Larsen’s feelings about Irene are embedded in her narrative choices and in her chilled reserve, in the archness of her tone and in winding sentences that seem fairly benign until the final telling clause. Hall’s approach is warmer and less intellectually distancing. Onscreen, you like Irene right away, partly because there’s a human being (Tessa Thompson, no less) whose presence and persona instantly draw you to the character. But in little and big moments — in coyly and sharply delivered lines, in hesitant and abrupt movements — Hall and Thompson play with and subvert your sympathies, pushing you far enough away so that you can actually see, and become equally invested in, Clare too. Thompson and Negga are both tremendous. Although Irene is the protagonist and the story is organized around her, the character’s complexities largely emerge in her relationship with Clare. The two reflect each other, but they’re in a hall of mirrors in which every pane presents a different image: Black, white, attentive wife, independent woman. Again and again, you watch these two characters discreetly or openly watching each other — Irene’s eyes are darting and demure, Clare’s searching and intense — creating a network of looks. And, as the story progresses, and as Irene continues on about her old friend’s attractiveness (“aren’t you lovely”), her gaze becomes persistent, troubled and erotic. Hall fits an extraordinary amount into her version of this streamlined, deceptively simple story of two women whose lives intersect in ways they don’t or can’t fully grasp.”
"Movie of the Week for October 29th, 2021: 'Passing'": The Alliance of Women Film Journalists selected the film as their Movie of the Week, and compiled the comments made by various members about the film, including those of Pam Grady quoted below.
“Actor Rebecca Hall makes a haunting writing/directing debut with her adaptation of Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larson’s 1929 novel. Childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) are delighted to renew their relationship as adults – at least, initially. Biracial women who can pass as white, both lean into that ability within a racist society. But Irene, married to African-American doctor Brian (Andre Holland) and the mother of two sons, is a proud Black woman who passes only on occasion, while Clare lives in disguise, having married John (Alexander Skarsgård), a vicious racist, for the creature comforts he can provide. The reunion with Irene does not just revive an important friendship, it pulls Clare back to her old neighborhood, reigniting old jealousies (and perhaps desires) with Irene and risking John discovering her secret. Brilliantly shot by cinematographer Edward Grau in luminous black and white, the film recreates both a bygone era and the racism that still plagues society, underlined by Thompson and Negga’s dazzling performances.”
"How to Get a Black-Led Indie Film Funded in Hollywood": According to Vulture's Joseph Bien-Kahn.
“In an increasingly top-heavy industry, every non-franchise movie is a miracle. But it’s doubly so when it’s an independent movie starring Black actors. 'Passing' is just the latest film produced by Significant Productions to encounter such challenges. Created in 2009 by Nina Yang Bongiovi and the actor Forest Whitaker, the company has become a pipeline to some of the industry’s buzziest independent productions, including Ryan Coogler’s 'Fruitvale Station,' Boots Riley’s 'Sorry to Bother You,' Rick Famuyiwa’s 'Dope,' and Chloé Zhao’s 'Songs My Brother Taught Me.' In a different Hollywood, the producers who had discovered and championed Coogler, Riley, and Zhao would have endless cachet. Still, a decade in, every independent film they have backed has been a grind to get made. 'The needle hasn’t moved much,' Bongiovi says. 'It’s a continual struggle.'”
"Everything's Not Black and White in Film 'Passing'": A provocative article from Danielle Sanders at the Chicago Defender, which contains the following quote from Rebecca Hall.
“There had always been vague talk about my grandfather being Black, and passing for white, although it was never framed that way. He was light-skinned; he married a Dutch woman, lived in a white neighborhood, and raised his children as white. I never knew him. He sadly passed when my mother was a teenager, and a lot of the answers to these questions went with him. At some point, I got a bit more inquisitive about trying to pin down the facts. It was made clear that yes, my grandfather was Black and was white-passing most of his life. I mentioned all of this to a friend of mine, and he suggested I read Passing. The feeling I had at the time was just this shock of recognition. I knew these characters and knew them in a way that I found confusing. I finished the novella and started writing the script almost immediately in some sort of attempt to get to grips with that feeling. Over the years, I think what I’ve come to is that even though I am a person who presents as white, and as such doesn’t experience the day to day pressures of being black in this country, I am also a person who grew up in a family that has been shaped indelibly and painfully by the legacy of racism, in particular the legacy of racial passing. In the end, I decided that I needed to make this film both because of where I come from as a filmmaker and also because making this film is my way of reaching back into my own family with compassion, generosity, and love towards those who formed their identities in a world that feared and despised them.”
"How Netflix's 'Passing' reflects the novel's time—and ours": Vox's Alissa Wilkinson offers a provocative analysis.
“Hall recognizes that while 'Passing' is about race, it extends beyond one identity category—'intersectionality, and all these different aspects of women under the patriarchy, fluidity around sexual choices and boundaries, homosexuality and heterosexuality all come into play,' she said. 'But [Larsen] didn’t know that she was writing some kind of intersectional tome.' Mostly, Larsen focused on the psychological effect that playing roles has on those who occupy them. And that effect is emphasized by Passing’s structure. It’s a short novel (the copy I read was 114 pages long), broken into three sections labeled 'Encounter,' 'Re-Encounter,' and 'Finale.' As in a good play, each of Passing’s 'acts' is built around the subtle and unspoken power dynamic between its main characters and the people around them, all trying to speak, act, dress, and look like whatever they believe the situation requires. And while we have access to Irene’s interior life, the other characters remain opaque. We have to think, guess, and put ourselves in their place to understand what’s happening.”
(L-R) Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival Co-Founder Stephanie Rance; CEO of RogerEbert.com and ”Passing” Executive Producer Chaz Ebert; “Passing” Director, Writer and Producer Rebecca Hall; and Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival Co-Founder Floyd Rance during the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on August 7th, 2021 in Edgartown, Massachusetts. Cr: Bernard Fairclough for NETFLIX. You can read about Chaz's Q&A with Rebecca in Ellen J. Wanjiru's report published at BlackFilm.com.
On "CBS Sunday Morning," co-host Michelle Miller spoke with Rebecca Hall, actors Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, and writers Lise Funderburg and Allyson Hobbs about the social history of passing, and its impact upon perception and power.