Nella Larsen’s 1929 provocative and emotionally unsettling novel about two light-skinned Black women who are able to pass for White has been adapted into a dismal and emotionally enervated film.
Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) uses her appearance to pass when it is convenient for her – mostly for entry into exclusive New York City stores and restaurants that prohibited Black consumers from being served. But at the end of the day, she remains focused on her Harlem-based world anchored by a marriage to a doctor – she admits he is too dark-skinned to pass – and their children plus her involvement in a local charity.
Irene has a chance encounter with long-estranged childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who has completely crossed the color line and has assumed a White identity. However, Clare’s husband is an unapologetic racist who refers to Blacks in racist epithets, and Irene is confused and angry that Clare would be married to such a man. But the friendship between the two is further tested by Irene’s jealousy of Clare’s free-spirited personality and her ability to ingratiate herself with her husband and children.
Writer-director Rebecca Hall presents “Passing” in a dreary black-and-white format that makes it look like the work of a team of pretentious film school students. Even worse, she has jettisoned the swift movement of Larsen’s text for a lugubrious pacing that will leave viewers frequently checking their watches out of irritation and boredom.
Thompson and Negga try to bring as much vitality as they can to the proceedings, but ultimately they cannot energize this dull vehicle.