Sundance 2021 has a fair share of anticipated titles, but few are as excited as an actress Rebecca HallScreenwriting and directing debut, pass. An adaptation of In the LarsenIn the novel of the same name from 1929, the film follows two black women passing white in New York in the 1920s, who, after being friends in high school, accidentally reunited later in life, only to fall into a thorny but seductive friendship Change life forever.
Clare (Ruth Negga) is a bubbly but mysterious woman who dated her white, wealthy, lazy racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgard He hit his angry quota) on the opposite side of the city she came from. Irene (Tessa Thompson), known affectionately as Reeny, is much more conservative in her lifestyle. She lives quietly in Harlem with her husband Brian (André Holland) and her two children. Irene sees Clare for the first time in years, making her first attempt to pop into a white-only tea lounge at the Drayton Hotel. If she succeeds, Clare does the same, albeit like clockwork. Clare is fair enough that everyone thinks she is white, including her husband.
Despite the risk of venturing into Harlem that jeopardizes her hidden identities, Clare enjoys her first visits to Reeny and Brian, and soon becomes a regular, sneaking into Harlem as often as she can, creating a whole new friendship. Irene and Brian are comfortable in a fine brown stone near a park. They even have their own maid who Reeny treats roughly at times. Privilege and contempt are deciphered in layers throughout history. As a film about biracial identity and performance, colorism is just as central as racism.
In its thoughtfulness and complexity, Passing is not careful to unpack what it means to be biracial in America, what it means to be forced to live performatively, or how difficult it is to consider conceptual fluidity, let alone because to live with it. Through open discussions between the leads, important aspects of the pending problems are addressed directly. But above all, this is a film that, as was customary in the 1920s, leaves things unsaid. Hall knows that many of the questions asked in the story are not questions with answers. They are questions that one has to deal with, think about, feel and ultimately navigate with.
It may seem like a weird film first choice for Hall, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that she is biracial herself. Hall presents itself as white, but it has black roots. Her maternal grandfather was a black man who married a Dutch woman. Her biracial mother Maria Ewing is a renowned opera singer. After this Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker When they heard Hall’s story and vision for Passing, they signed up to produce.
For a novella, Larsen’s work covers an immeasurable range, and Hall tries to do so as subtly and tactfully as Larsen’s book. But that’s one of the problems with Passing. It is not often that a film can satisfactorily combat racism, colorism, sexism, classism, sexuality and infidelity all at the same time. In this case, issues of race and class are rightly at the center of attention, while sexuality and gender are occasionally contemplated but otherwise feel thematically absent. Or at least they aren’t that seamlessly tied into the narrative or the images. There is also something missing in the emotional drive. The unknown magical factor that makes you keep coming back to movies is a bit out of reach. It takes five to ten minutes of exposure that never seem to lead to anything, and these sequences fade from your memory almost immediately.
It is worth noting, however, that my insight into Reeny and Clare, their motivations, and the story they live in is limited to the experience of a white man. So I encourage everyone to read perspectives from those who can draw insights that I just can’t.
Regardless, Hall deserves credit for her work behind the screen in other ways. Her more formal approach suits the story and time period, and while it leaves a little something to be desired, there is one appeal to it, especially in the way it frames Harlem – stills that represent an immovable place in time, everything else as proven to be indestructible and much more eternally generative. Think of all of the culture, creativity, and life that Harlem has nurtured, mostly from black and Puerto Rican communities. Take the movie’s source novella, for example. The neighborhood is productive enough to have two films representing them at the festival this year. The other is Questlove’s unveiling of footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival at the Summer of Soul.
Capturing a glowing Harlem in its prime (the Harlem Renaissance), Hall uses its architectural glitz and decadent Italian-inspired interior design to create one of the thousands of landmark stories that have emerged from the cultural epicenter. It’s the type of film whose elegance and decadence make you rave about every detail, like the highlighting of feminine hats or the inflections and diction that give their “casual tone” an appropriate tone in this day and age.
The story is simple enough to invite you to take the exam, but it’s not about getting you excited. It wants to woo you, put you in its crease, to feel what Irene and Clare are feeling – more Irene than Clare, as it is told from the former’s perspective. Passing is a graceful, aesthetically magnetic debut brought to life by dazzling performances by Thompson and Negga leading a modern dream piece team. But as perfect as that sounds, it’s not the masterpiece that many have predicted.
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