Actor Rebecca Hall makes a striking feature film directorial debut with Passing, an adaptation (which she wrote) of the 1929 novel of the same name written by Nella Larsen.

Clare (Ruth Negga) recognizes her old friend Reenie (Tessa Thompson) as they sit at the sort of high-end tea room not normally reserved for people of color. Yet both of them are actually of mixed race and are of a lighter skin complexion which allows them to pass as being white. So much so that Clare has married John (Alexander Skarsgård), a white man who believes that his wife is 100% white. She lives in a much different world than Reenie who lives in Harlem with her husband, Brian (André Holland), and their two kids.

Their friendship has a mysterious history, with more than may originally meets the eye. This sudden arrival does seem odd to Brian but soon he and his family embrace the sudden reemergence of Clare who practically becomes a part of their family. They are soon inviting her to their home and out to wild dance hall parties that take place during the Harlem Renaissance where they hang out with their white writer friend Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp).

The decision to shoot in black and white (gorgeously shot by cinematographer Eduard Grau) is for obvious effect, showing how this idea of clear white vs black is actually something obviously much more grey and complex and highlights the women’s abilities to blend in with those who hate them so much. There’s a freedom and guilt to Clare’s ability to live a double lifestyle of sorts and a restrictedness that Reenie is dealing with internally with her friend suddenly reappearing into their lives.

Hall wasn’t an obvious candidate to switch sides to behind the lens and not with such a deliberate and heavy source material. But her vision is fully realized and she manages to get some fantastic performances from her entire cast – her two leads especially. While there are flashes of a first-time director finding their footing in terms of balancing the story arc and pacing, overall, it’s a striking debut and one that actually executes a memorable ending that will cause much discussion and debate as it is a timely film that unfortunately reminds us that nearly a full century later, not all that much has changed.

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