• Shah Shahid

REVIEW: Passing Is A Tense And Taut Story Of Race And Identity

Passing is a new Netflix original movie that deals with the life of a wife and mother set in 1920s Harlem. The movie sees how the life of this woman slowly becomes disrupted by the introduction of an old childhood friend. Passing is many things, but in a sense, it’s two movies put together to create a story that is sad and at times, downright scary. It’s dealing with race in a way that we've rarely seen before.


Read on for my Spoiler-free Passing review.

What Is Passing About?

Ruth Negga and Alexander Skarsgard in Passing. Image: Netflix.
Ruth Negga and Alexander Skarsgaard in Passing. Image: Netflix.

The synopsis of Passing is admittedly vague. It deals with a woman in 1920s Harlem, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson). Irene seems to have a great life. A husband, two great sons, and a family that's one of the more affluent Black households in the neighborhood. As the movie begins, Irene is in a different part of town. Shopping in a store with Caucasians, dining out at a restaurant, and getting into a taxi cab. All these innocuous and seemingly boring scenes are happening through a lens of tense anxiousness.


We realize later on, that Irene is passing for a white woman in this part of town. So while her day looks mundane to the audience, it’s most likely a stressful situation for her. Especially in this decade of American history, where segregation was very much alive, and these actions could’ve cost Irene her life if she were exposed.


During her day, Irene comes across an old friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), and soon realizes that Clare has taken passing as a white woman to a whole new extreme. Clare married a white man and has a child with him, all the while hiding the fact that she’s black. Even my anxiety flared up to a factor of eleven at this reveal.

It’s a subtle look at how race affects one’s identity, during a time when revealing the truth could put you in serious danger.

Passing Review Is Spoiler Free Due To The Emotional Driven Story

Ruth Negga and Tess Thompson in Passing. Image: Netflix.
Ruth Negga and Tess Thompson in Passing. Image: Netflix.

There’s not a whole lot that ‘happens’ in Passing. The movie is less an event or action-driven story, and it’s more about how Clare’s presence in Irene’s life affects her, and the relationships around her. It’s a subtle look at how race affects one’s identity, during a time when revealing the truth could put you in serious danger.


Clare is admittedly unhappy in her life passing to be a white woman for years. Especially when you factor in how blatantly racist her husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) is. Irene, and the audience, immediately understand just how disturbed or damaged Clare must be to live with and share a life with a man that hates who she actually is.


Over time, Clare appears in Irene’s home and begins to develop a friendship with her, her husband Brian (Andre Holland), and their inner circle of friends and acquaintances. Through Irene, Clare is able to get back that part of her life, socializing with others in her community, that she permanently gave up when choosing to pass as white.


Director Rebecca Hall Has A Personal Stake In The Story Of Passing

Andre Holland and Tess Thompson in Passing. Image: Netflix.
Andre Holland and Tess Thompson in Passing. Image: Netflix.

The 1929 book of the same name by author Nella Larsen is the basis for Passing’s adaptation into a feature film by actress-turned-director Rebecca Hall. It’s a story that’s of note for the new director, as it mirrors something in her personal life. Hall’s grandfather was a light-skinned black man who passed as white for the majority of his life. And despite the magnitude of that lifestyle, it’s only a revelation that Hall learned of, recently.

Trying to grasp the complexities of a life lived in that manner, Hall seemingly channels her own emotions into Passing. And similarly, the movie works as an exploration of a lot of deep-seated themes and topics. Clare’s regret in denying her own identity and community for years is an obvious source of her unhappiness. Irene develops jealousy and resentment towards Clare for being the object of her husband’s attention. Even how Irene's husband, Brian, insists on teaching their sons about how Black people are treated in society gets pushback from Irene. She would rather they live in ignorance and protect their innocence; a perspective that Hall may have explored herself? But despite these weighty moral dilemas, the film never gets distracted by delving into those issues too densely.


Trying to grasp the complexities of a life lived in that manner, Hall seemingly channels her own emotions into Passing. And similarly, the movie works as an exploration of a lot of deep-seated themes and topics.

Passing Is Not Without Its Issues

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing. Image: Netflix.
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing. Image: Netflix.

Passing is a supremely interesting movie. Its depiction of its leading black characters is anything but typical. Like how Irene is affected by watching her own black housekeeper seem to prefer Clare over her. It’s these subtle and tiny moments that really make Passing an interesting watch. Although, it’s not all wonderful.

The film moves at a snail's pace. While the initial sequence of Clare and Irene’s first meeting is interesting and anxiety-inducing, things slow down significantly afterward. At times the pacing of the film is so slow it struggles to maintain its prior level of viewer engagement. However, the movie recovers in its climax to put audiences right back on the edge of their seat.

Passing premieres on Netflix on November 10.


Did you enjoy this period drama? Let us know in the comments below.