Sundance standout ‘Passing’ is an unforgettable look at racial identity

Buzzy film based on Nella Larsen's 1929 novel and starring Tessa Thompson arrives on Netflix

Brad Keefe
"Passing"

Looking back over my year in movies, it’s hard to overstate the quality of this year’s slate at the Sundance Film Festival.

I was granted limited press access to this year’s virtual event, and many of the best movies of 2021 were ones I saw in early February in a time when movie theaters felt like a dream.

Sundance premiered two of my top documentaries with Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” and Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers.”

It’s also where I first saw my frontrunner for best horror film of the year, Prano Bailey-Bond’s “Censor,” and a real contender for best movie of the year with Sian Heder’s “CODA.”

And while it had popped up on numerous Best of 2020 lists, it also marked the proper premiere of Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

My pass limited me to only screening 10 of the festival selections, but one of the most buzzed-about films I missed arrived on Netflix this week with Rebecca Hall’s “Passing.”

Adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing” is centered on Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a light-skinned Black woman living in 1920s Harlem.

Irene identifies as Black and is married to a Black doctor (André Holland), affording the couple an upper-class life. But when Irene has a chance encounter with her close childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), it begins a series of events that leaves Irene reflecting on her own identity and a dynamic of race in society that resonates nearly a century later.

Clare is visiting from Chicago with her businessman husband John (Alexander Skarsgård). When Irene and Clare catch up over drinks at a hotel, two things become apparent: Clare has lived her adult life “passing” as white, and her husband is an overt racist who clearly does not know.

Hall, known for her acting career, makes a stunning and confident debut behind the camera as writer-director in a project that was personal for her. She first read Larsen’s novel when she was trying to make sense of a story about racial identity in her own family’s past.

The resulting film is simultaneously delicate, thoughtful and challenging. The gorgeous throwback filmmaking style, incorporating black-and-white photography and a vintage aspect ratio, makes “Passing” feel like a haunting dream.

There aren’t enough superlatives for the two lead actors. It’s the shining star in Thompson’s ascendancy to acting greatness, and Negga is every bit as good in a role that hits decidedly different notes.

Netflix purchased exclusive rights to “Passing” after Sundance, a clear indicator they felt it would be the kind of award contender that raises their profile, but that also means that more people can see one of the year’s best films from the comfort of home.

“Passing”

Now streaming on Netflix

4 stars out of 5