The alleged dead and buried practice of racial passage by light-skinned blacks in the United States decades ago has returned to center stage in Who passed, a delicate, sensitive, intentionally claustrophobic and not quite flexible directorial debut from protean British performer Rebecca Hall. Based on the recently resurrected 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, which enjoyed modest success in its time, the film is unquestionably intriguing for its take on a very special convention that younger generations know very little about. But the adaptation is also rather arched and aridly decorated, with a well-rehearsed rather than spontaneous feel that sometimes weighs things down. Still, it’s something very different from the usual fare in theaters and on the hit tube and, given the topic, it will appeal to the intellectually curious and culturally informed.
Sundance Review: “ On The Count Of Three ” by Jerrod Carmichael
The passing phenomenon was familiar to the general public over the past century due to a handful of popular entertainment options, most notably the classic of the music scene. Exhibition boat and its screen versions, the bestselling novel by Fannie Hurst Imitation of life, which also spawned two popular film adaptations, and the Elia Kazan drama in 1949 Pinky, a huge success at a time when black customers in many parts of the country were still forced to sit only on the balcony. There was also the 1960 film I passed for White, based on a real life book, and a reversal of the same concept, Black like me a book in 1961 and, four years later, a film about a white writer who darkened his skin to live in the South as a black man.
It’s been a long time since old school friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) saw each other again when they meet again in New York City. “You’ve changed so,” Irene can’t help but notice, as Clare, who has fairly fair skin, dyed her hair blonde and, in the affair, married John (Alexander Skarsgard) at the Viking appearance, with a full beard that was not in fashion during the Roaring Twenties. When Irene asks John, “Have you ever known niggers?”, He replies, “No, but I know people who know them.”
Accompanied by a tingling piano score, the film is a bit steep at the start, with precious little dramatic hits. The two old friends talk to each other in an oddly formal way, and the rooms feel quite uninhabited. While living a masquerade, Clare tried to make a statement, to distance herself from her past and her real self in order to rise up in society. Appearances are all and after a few minutes some of the extended chatter scenes become rather bleak in their pretense and ridiculous height of wit. On top of that, Hall is doing them no favors by not providing much oomph to the exchanges. For too long the film feels almost inert, needs to come to life.
Part of the feeling of ‘trapped’ stems from the wise decision to use the old 4: 3 square format. Cinematographer Eduard Grau makes the most of it, as most of the film is shot in confined spaces. , and the way he and Hall artificially compress the world the characters inhabit makes the threat posed by what lies outside of anything existentially oppressive.
The drama’s focus remains very tight throughout, only developing when Irene and her husband Brian (Andre Holland) move permanently from Chicago to New York with their two sons and get involved in charitable work with Hugh (Bill Camp ), which Heightened suspicions about the truth about Irene arose when she made her most candid admission on the subject: “We’re all going for something or the other, aren’t we?”
Hall’s adaptation is carefully constructed and very attentive to the needs of the two central female characters as they desperately attempt to maintain their little artificially created worlds to themselves. There are allusions to a self-defeating Tennessee Williams heroine in Clare, who creates a fantasy for herself sculpting a fragile but ultimately unsustainable private estate involving keeping up appearances. Psychologically it’s not at all complex, but the film’s variation on a particular type of self-sacrifice is tragic and quite unusual on screen.
Negga and Thompson are splendid as women whose primary impulses drive them to experience lies, constructs that take them very far – and, in the most radical case, fatally – from what they were born to be. Whatever issues the film may have, it gives a distinctive look into how some things weren’t so far off.
Who passed made its world premiere in the US Dramatic Competition section. Operation time: 98 minutes. Sales Agent: Endeavor Content.