'Passing' review: Racial drama torn between two worlds

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga star in the writing and directing debut from Rebecca Hall.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Early on in "Passing," writer-director Rebecca Hall's measured, quiet drama about race, identity and society in New York in the 1920s, there's a scene where John Bellew, a fancy society-type played by Alexander Skarsgård, is talking about how much he despises Black people. "I hate them," he says, cackling.

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in "Passing."

What he doesn't realize is his wife, Clare (Ruth Negga, an Oscar nominee for "Loving") and her friend, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) — the very people to whom he's speaking — are both Black. They're passing as White, to varying degrees: Clare has fully ingrained herself in White society, while Irene keeps a foot in both the Black and White worlds. But they're both successful enough to fool John, whose racism has so totally blinded him that he's no longer able to see what's in front of him. 

That's the biggest leap required in "Passing," based on Nella Larsen's nearly century-old novel, a film so ingrained in issues of Black and White that it's filmed in stark black and white tones. While the photography coveys a mood of warmth, the story is rather tepid, a mild character study that touches on elements of mystery, forbidden romance and politics but never quite reaches a full boil. 

Irene is introduced early on as she enters a posh hotel on a hot day, passing as White so she can enjoy a cold iced tea underneath a glass atrium and escape her life for a few moments. It's there she sees Clare, an acquaintance from her childhood she hasn't seen in 12 years, and maybe doesn't want to. The presumptuous Clare works herself back into Irene's life, using her to experience the (Black) life in Harlem she's left behind, and in so doing winds up stirring issues of jealousy, insecurity and ultimately longing within Irene.  

Irene has two boys, is married to a doctor ("Moonlight's" André Holland) and works on a committee that organizes social functions for the Negro Welfare League. She works to protect her children from the horrors of racism, while her husband is more front and center about the realities of the world and their place in it, and longs to leave America behind. Again, she's torn. 

And so it goes in her friendship with Clare, a free spirit and social interloper who awakens Irene's world in several ways, for better and for worse. Both Thompson and Negga turn in strong performances, and match the intimacy of Hall's storytelling (Hall's grandfather was Black, and spent most of his life passing as White). But as a film, "Passing" feels somewhat undercooked, and builds to a sudden and unsatisfying conclusion. It's a movie that feels like it's straddling between too many worlds. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama 

'Passing'

GRADE: C+

Rated PG-13: for thematic material, some racial slurs and smoking 

Running time: 99 minutes

On Netflix