Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut draws brilliant performances by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in this stunning and striking black and white film tackling race in the 1920’s. Two light-skinned friends bump into each other realizing that one is upper middle class Black while the other is passing for White.
Hall told us at the Chicago International Film Festival that she read Nella Larsen’s book from the Harlem Renaissance era 13 years and ago and never stopped thinking about making the movie. It touched her for several reasons, including that she had an African American grandfather in her own family. Hall expressed sadness that her mother knew nothing about him.
The writer-director has created a beautiful piece of filmmaking exploring self identity, confusion, social status in elegant settings. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is calm, confined, restrained and boiling under the surface. She seems ensconced in her role as the refined wife of a doctor (André Holland) in the Black community, saying she has everything she wants.
But Irene begins to question her own identity when she renews acquaintance with the ebullient, free-spirited, blond Clare, who is full of confidence and personality. Irene is surprised when she learns that Clare is “passing” and is the wife of a successful White-racist businessman (Alexander Skarsgård). He has no idea she is African-American. Irene is envious of Clare’s devil-may-care spirit, but it gives her pause, thinking about her own situation. As Irene says in the movie, “We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?”
The cinematography, beautifully tailored period costumes, especially the hats, hair and makeup are all exquisitely detailed . So is the black and white cinematography by Eduard Grau. It was shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Hall confirmed in our interview that she wanted tight closeups zeroing in on these women’s faces, as if they were confined in a box. But as the camera lingers on their faces, you can see that Hall wants you to see that they have more on their mind than what’s right in front of them. One scene has Irene practically in profile staring off as she is taking a good look at her life. Is she really who she thinks she is, or holding secrets within.
The question of acceptance of each other becomes more important as the women interact and become closer. Clare may look as though she is free as a bird and has everything she wants, but does she?
Although based on a book from 1929, it is relevant about attitudes still in place about race and social status, marriage and motherhood. For her first time in the director’s chair, Rebecca Hall has cast a perfectly paced personal story on racial identity in an artistically beautiful package.
Netflix 1 hour 38 minutes. PG-13
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