Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

I was wary about “Passing” when I found out that it was written and directed by Rebecca Hall (“Christine”). While I love her work, I tend to harbor resentment for white people who tell Black stories, especially one so dear to me as a mixed race Black woman. But after seeing it, noting how much of the dialogue was taken directly from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name and hearing the way Hall clearly thought carefully about her work (based on her responses in the post-screening Q&A), any fears of co-opted stories were wiped away. 

In the Harlem Renaissance, Irene (Tessa Thompson, “Dear White People”), has a chance encounter with Clare (Ruth Negga, “Ad Astra”), a childhood friend who she had known as Black but now chooses to pass as white. Clare and Irene are both light-skinned Black women, though it’s unclear if either of them have a white parent or if their complexions were just up to chance. Irene has married a wealthy Black man and lives in Harlem with her two dark-skinned sons, while the blonde Clare married a racist white man who is unaware of her true identity. The two women rekindle their friendship but are at odds with the other’s choices in life. It’s a beautiful story, and I highly recommend reading the source material. 

What’s so great about adapting text to film is that it adds a whole new layer to the literary experience. On the choice to film in a cramped aspect ratio, Hall said, “If you take a frame and then squeeze it down so that there’s no room for anything but the face, I think that you sort of signal to the audience that this film is about scrutinizing a face.” 

Beyond even the moments where the leading women’s faces are studied in attempts to decode their ethnic makeup, there are so many imperceptible changes, in Irene’s face in particular, that seem to reveal just how repressed the characters are — just how much they’re holding back. Irene keeps her head low so that she can hide under the brim of her hat as she hands a white woman something she’d dropped, so that the woman can only see this quirk with her lip, a sort of “survival apparatus,” smiling just enough so that the white woman doesn’t find her threatening but not enough so that she draws attention to herself. It’s heartbreaking.

I sometimes feel that the benefit of bringing historical fiction to the screen is that we can see these people who feel so far away in full color, as opposed to the grainy photographs in textbooks or our mothers’ keepsakes. 

However, Hall chose to shoot “Passing” in black and white. As I was watching, I felt that it was creating a comfortable distance between the viewer and the film, reminding us of our ignorance about untold stories, asking us to open our eyes and notice not the color of the potted plant but the shape it takes as it falls out of a window. 

Hall explained, “To make a film about colorism with the color drained out of it asks you to look at it as abstraction … You look at something in black and white and you accept it, but you’re undergoing a process of translation. Film isn’t black and white, it’s gray. I think that appealed to me because I feel that this is a story of nuance and gray areas and ambiguity.” 

There’s this incredible effect that shows how differently Thompson’s skin appears in different lighting, sometimes making her appear darker or paler — just like the main characters’ class status, passing as white or Black is all about the environment around them. The camera lingers on mirrors upon mirrors in the wealthy homes Irene and Clare live and leisure in; wonderings about what they look like to other people and if they’re black or white or gray loom over their heads.

When I was in high school, my literature teachers challenged us to view a story for what it is, to really, truly focus on the character rather than ourselves — to not search for ways in which we’re the same or how the story could relate to modern-day, but listen to what it has to say about its specific time. “Passing” is an important historical record of the experience of wealthy Black people in the art scene, as well as the complexities of colorism just a few decades removed from the Civil War. 

But honestly, I’m glad that we can see this story for what it is in our current world. I hope Tessa Thompson thinks carefully about the opportunities she’s been given as a light-skinned woman, as “Hollywood’s acceptable version of a Black girl.” I hope movies like this convince my brother that we’re actually pretty lucky that our mom is white and that the tragic mulatto trope really is just a myth.

Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at maryelzz@umich.edu.