Rebecca Hall’s acclaimed directorial debut, “Passing,” won the U.S. Narrative Feature Jury Award at the 33rd installment of NewFest, New York City's LGBTQ+ film festival. According to the jury's official statement, “The film’s expressive cinematography, beautiful performances, and clear directorial vision all come together in this devastating story of destabilized identity.” The movie is now in limited theatrical release and will premiere on Netflix on Wednesday, November 10th.
"Passing," which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is an adaptation of Nella Larsen's revelatory 1929 novel starring Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga ("Loving") and Tessa Thompson ("Dear White People") as Clare and Irene, respectively—two African-American high school friends who reenter one another's lives as adults but who by then are living on opposite sides of the color line. Negga's character is passing as white but has an openly racist husband (Alexander Skaarsgard), who has no idea of the secret she is hiding. Thompson's character chooses to live as Black, and her rich social and family life in Harlem draws her friend back like a moth to a flame.
Our website's publisher, Chaz Ebert, is an executive producer of the film, and says she supported it because she was familiar with Nella Larsen's book and knew it was all too rare to see two Black women and their emotional lives highlighted on the big screen this way. "In previous films about Black women passing for white, white actresses were cast for the role. Rebecca Hall said it was very important to her to cast Black actors and to look at the story from their points of view. Hall's film is exquisite."
"Also," Chaz continues, "racial 'passing' is a little known phenomenon in today's world. However, when I was growing up you heard many stories about people 'passing,' but the word was whispered so as not to divulge anyone's secret by outing them. Hall's adaptation is faithful to Larsen's novella, but also adds elegant cinematic touches of her own. And let's face it, race is still one of the more difficult topics to talk about in our society. It becomes even more complicated when race intersects with gender and class. Perhaps the film will spark empathy and enlightening conversations."
Hall's own family hid a racially mixed heritage. Her mother is American opera singer Maria Ewing, whose own father passed for white. Hall didn't know this growing up and making this film was a way for her to investigate it and come to her own conclusions. Her father is British theater impresario Peter Hall. So Hall grew up white and British, but always wondered about her mother's background. She has since had a chance to research it.
Hall shot this film (with cinematographer Eduard Grau) in sumptuous black and white and a 4:3 aspect ratio to maximize the period look and feel. Serving as the the film's producer is Nina Yang Bongiovi, who formed Significant Productions with Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. Together they have produced other Sundance hits such as "Fruitvale Station," "Dope," "Sorry to Bother You" and Chloé Zhao's first film, "Songs My Brother Taught Me." "I hope with a film like 'Passing,' filmmakers and creatives are inspired and emboldened to push the boundaries in narratives that don’t confine us," said Bongiovi. "Great storytelling transcends globally."
Bongiovi's conviction has been further proven by the praise that "Passing" has received since its premiere. "In her gorgeously shot emotional gut-punch of a feature directorial debut, actress Rebecca Hall announces herself as a true force behind the camera and gifts stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga with roles worthy of their formidable talents," wrote Geoff Berkshire in The Los Angeles Times. "Hall’s adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen begins as an exploration of biracial people passing for white in the ‘20s and effortlessly expands to explore the nuances of class, gender and sexuality that overshadow an uneasy friendship." Our site's Managing Editor Brian Tallerico wrote that the film is "a subtle and nuanced examination of racial boundaries and definitions, amplified by issues of sexuality that would have been equally daring at the time this book was published. [...] It’s a conversation piece in every way, and those are always the films that matter most."
In his three-and-a-half star review, our critic Odie Henderson wrote that "Hall, Grau, editor Sabine Hoffman, and composer Devonté Hynes do an excellent job of casting a hypnotic spell on the audience. "This is a deliberately paced film with enveloping moods that feel like symphony movements. There’s heavy material here, but 'Passing' doesn’t belabor its points. When [her husband] Brian rightfully tries to warn his sons about the racist trouble they’ll face in the world, Irene argues that they should have some innocence in their youth. We understand both arguments even though we know one of them is very, very naïve. The entire film exists in this perpetual state of a deceptively gentle push and pull. It’s a masterful balance of tone."
Read our contributor Isaac Feldberg's interview with Rebecca Hall here.