Passing – Black and White Snapshots

19 November, 2021

Much can be done with the dead spirit of the twenties. At least in theory. In cinema, Francis Ford Coppola attempted to resurrect it in 1974, in The Godfather: Part II, and the formula he used back then – a slightly desaturated, yellowish cinematography + the swinging, operatic music of Nino Toate + the ubiquitous, worn-out trench coats – quickly tired into an universal recipe. It’s ingredients may vary: Woody Allen added some jazz to it, Baz Luhrmann sprinkled some glitter and extravaganza on top, Tom Twyker recently amplified its socio-political background. The result has the familiar atmosphere of a museum – pleasant to those that enjoy museums, obsolete to all others. Maybe the biggest problem about films that regard the twenties, a subspecies of costume dramas (or period films, as they’re called in Romania), oftentimes have the air of good intentions and nostalgic treatment of culture (or the other way around), and, especially, of money. Just like museums. When it comes to both costume dramas and museums, there are two extant versions nowadays: dusty and predictable, or shiny and fully transparent with regards to the pile of money that enables its existence. You can rarely find a middle ground. In the case of costume dramas, a recent such example, to me, is Rebecca Hall’s Passing.

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in „Passing” by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau..

It’s another film whose plot is set in the twenties of the last century, but its intimate atmosphere does not recall a museum. It has its obvious intentions, but at a much smaller scale. For one that is thinking in the terms set by Romanian cinema, the scale of reference must be adjusted, but, at the scale of American cinema, Passing, with its 10 million dollar budget, doesn’t have scenes or sets that implicitly and intermittently praise its power to mobilier financial resources. It’s a film with didactic intentions, that’s for sure, which is obvious to anyone that can recognize the name of its production company in the credits, Significant Productions. It’s one of the small production houses that lie somewhere in between media conglomerates, legal heirs to the big Hollywood studios, and newer more ambitious labels, such as A24 or Annapurna, trying to find a niche for independent films that are helmed by filmmakers of color. They became famous after financially supporting Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s 2013 debut, which won awards at Sundance and Cannes. Their most interesting wager so far, however, is the film of director and activist Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You (2018). Passing is, given the pedigree of this company, somewhat unusual: it’s the project of a well-known British actress, Rebecca Hall, who, for her debut, wanted to adapt the novel penned by an Afro-American author that was until recently ignored by most literary histories, Bella Larsen. Her second (and last) novel, Passing, was published in 1929 and is usually contextualized as a part of a greater cultural phenomenon known in the history of the United States as the “Harlem Renaissance”. To make a film based on this relatively obscure novel is, for a company such as Significant Productions, an act of cultural recovery. For Rebecca Hall, judging by her own words, the film lies somewhere at the intersection between a subtle connection with her own lived (personal and family-wide) experiences, and a cultural background that remains foreign to her. And this might be a point of access for this project which is inevitably a hybrid – lying between the intentions of the original source material and the 2021 finite product, between the social and cultural ambiguities that Passing revealed in 1921 and the relevance that such a novel might still have almost a century later.


Seen in retrospect, as a prose writer, Nella Larsen is a modernist that doesn’t have very obvious modernist intentions. Like one Henrik Ibsen, she can be linked to modernism rather through her topics and preoccupations than technique. Her best pages can be compared to the best (and most famous) of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: in its most notable moments, one can find in her prose the preoccupation for the disordered gusto of an exacerbated conscience. In the background, however, there lies the topic that is most dearest to late 19th century prose, and that is bourgeois respectability. The novel is constructed in the surroundings of this notion of respectability. Its protagonist, Irene Redfield, weighs all that happens to her and her one-time friend, Clare Kendry, against this social norm. Clare married a man that she somehow tricked into it since he is unaware of her ethnic origins. A recurring element in the storytelling, which is recounted from Irene’s perspective, is the same judgement, both social and ethical at the same time, according to which what is to be condemned is not the wish to pass as something as you are not, seeking to gain comfort and stability (hence the title, which refers to those who wish to “pass” as whites in the eyes of whites), but one’s lacking capacity of knowing their own place, of not messing with the unwritten rules of the educated and respectable society.


On the other hand, also seen in retrospect, and in accordance to the rules of today, just as constrictive, but different in content, this notion of respectability is visibly a norm that is coming from a century ago. It’s an old artifact, something that is so recognizable because it has been repeated and used ad infinitum, even in soap operas. There, too, you have characters who are afraid that a revelation might ruin their apparent reputations, the rickety facade of what they seem to be. A century later, this idea of respectability is an object in an imaginary museum of yesteryear – just as the protagonist’s gesture (also seen in the film), as she is in the grasp of an intense inner turmoil, manifesting as she lets a teapot (or teacup, in the novel) to fall out of her hands and crash upon the floor. Gestures and ideas that allow one to see the age of the text which Rebecca Hall is adapting in Passing. So then, what is modern and up to date in the film? First of all, a given sort of subtlety. The novel penned by Nella Larsen is, in itself, propelled by three or four grandiose and significant scenes. The best of all is the one in which Irene gets acquainted with Clara Kendry’s husband. He innocently dubs his wife as “Nig”, having fun with the fact that the texture of her skin is more and more similar to that of the race that is implicitly abhorred by the American ruling white elite. It’s a half-insult, the equivalent of a half-hidden racism, treated with a leisurely self-complacency. This moment is symbolic of the novel’s intrigue. Somewhat brusquely introduced in the screenplay penned by Rebecca Hall, it doesn’t pack the same punch in the film. But even so, the film preserves the novel’s idea that racial violence is part of the fabric of day to day discussions in an educated, post-victorian society in which racism has turned into a matter of politeness – meaning that it’s not nice to be openly racist. Where Hall’s screenplay excels in terms of ambition is in its simplification of the source material. A writer of her era, Larsen describes, in a psychologizing third person voice, reaction after reaction after reaction. The character who is an involved witness in all of the events of Passing, Irene, constantly adjusts her perception: she wants to understand, she thinks she understands, she retrospectively comes back to the things that she thought she understood. In the absence of the novel’s inner monologue, Tessa Thompson, the actress playing Irene, has no other choice but to depict this intimate and almost infinite inner pendulum by raising the tone of her voice, through posture, using her body to mimic the places where her mind is going in the novel. It’s a very hard exercise in translating the thoughts and post-victorian irony, but it is precisely this ambition that drags the source material in a modernist area that is historically ulterior to it. It’s an elegant simplification, which one cannot spot without having read the novel. But that’s exactly the idea – to not perceive, by how the story is adapted, a certain way of narrative which is rather typical of another era.

PASSING – (L-R) ANDRÉ HOLLAND as BRIAN and TESSA THOMPSON as IRENE. Cr: Emily V. Aragones/Netflix © 2021

What the film does really manage to achieve, beyond this reduction to the essential and nuance, is its look. The twenties, as reimagined in black-and-white by cinematographer Eduard Grau (famous for his collaboration with Tom Ford on A Single Man), has few equivalents in cinema. It’s a cinephile reconstruction, which feeds on the cinema of the same era: Grau and Hall searched for inspiration in the black-and-white films of the twenties, in order to emulate a style of imagery that was specific to the late period of the Silent Age. There is a bit of aestheticism, of deliberate beauty, both in the intentions and the results. A beautiful film, with a polished cinematography, is always a little bit suspicious – especially if it points its finger at reality and the shortcomings of society. It’s however easy to forget this ambiguity, caught in the hypnotic shots tastefully executed by Grau. Occasionally, you can feel the hand of a beginner filmmaker, when it comes to the ideas behind the mise-en-scene which is a bit too obvious. The characters in the film, while lusting for each other, are caught in the same frame. As soon as a conflict erupts between them, the image separates them in individual shots – each of them isolated in their rectangle of frustration and ego. But when Hall and Grau synchronise their best ideas, the result is admirable. Beyond the project of showing an era in other images, where Grau excels through variety and imagination, even with the minimal set that he has to work with, the film also has a great ending, which transposes into gestures and images things which, in Nella Larses’ novel, are rather exposed through an omniscient lens, pertaining to the thoughts the characters keep to themselves. It’s an ending that is a testament to the intelligence of this film, which lies in more areas than its beauty.

Radu Toderici is a film critic and researcher. Lately he’s interested in the history of the Romanian cinema during socialism. He writes for Steaua literary magazine and is also a professor at the University of Theatre & Film Babes-Bolyai, from Cluj. He believes the recipe for a good life includes at least one and a half film a day.