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'Passing' puts a fresh spin on an old-fashioned story about race and identity

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new movie "Passing," based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play two old acquaintances who have very different attitudes about their racial identity. The film, which is now playing in theaters and premieres on Netflix on November 10, was written and directed by actor Rebecca Hall. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says Hall makes a story that may seem old-fashioned quiver with meaning.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in 1982, Julie Dash made a stinging short film titled "Illusions." It starred Lonette McKee as an African American woman who, passing as white, works as a Hollywood executive during World War II. Her war, she says, isn't being fought overseas. It's getting the movies to finally show Black lives in their human complexity. I think she'd be pleased with the new Netflix film "Passing," an adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novella that, like "Illusions," centers on a Black woman who pretends to be white but also on one who could pretend but does not. Written and directed by British actress Rebecca Hall, this artful, unsettling debut builds to a hushed ending full of confusion and sadness.

Tessa Thompson stars as Irene, a prim doctor's wife in late 1920s Harlem. One day she takes advantage of her light skin to go for tea atop a fancy white hotel. There she encounters Clare - that's Ruth Negga - whom she'd known in her youth. She learns that Clare, who's even lighter-skinned, has spent the last 12 years passing, even marrying a prosperous white man played by Alexander Skarsgard. Meeting him, Irene is appalled. He's a flat-out racist who uses the N-word. She can't wait to escape them. But Clare seems hungry for the Black culture she's lost pretending to be white. She begins insinuating herself into Irene's life. Vibrantly seductive but unmoored, Clare will do whatever it takes to be happy. Her presence disconcerts the cautious Irene, who wonders if this interloper is having an affair with her husband, played by Andre Holland. Meanwhile, we wonder if Irene, who deflects her husband's sexual overtures, isn't herself attracted to Clare.

Here at a dance for the Negro Welfare League, Irene is chatting with her acquaintance Hugh, nicely played by Bill Camp, a white writer interested in Harlem life. When she gets him to look closely at Clare, who's out on the dance floor, he's startled to grasp the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PASSING")

BILL CAMP: (As Hugh) I'll be damned.

TESSA THOMPSON: (As Irene) Nobody can tell from looking at her.

CAMP: (As Hugh) No. Most surprising. Tell me, can you always tell the difference?

THOMPSON: (As Irene) Oh, now you really are sounding ignorant.

CAMP: (As Hugh) No, no. I mean it. Feelings of kinship or something like that?

THOMPSON: (As Irene) Hugh, stop talking to me like you're writing a piece for the National Geographic. I can tell same as you. But I suppose sometimes there is a - a thing, a thing that can't be registered.

CAMP: (As Hugh) Yes. I understand what you mean, yet lots of people pass all the time.

THOMPSON: (As Irene) It's easy for a Negro to pass for white. I'm not sure it'd be so simple for a white person to pass for colored.

CAMP: (As Hugh) Never thought of that.

THOMPSON: (As Irene) No, Hugh, why should you?

POWERS: It's a nifty exchange, but this scene actually underscores a feature of the film that takes some adjusting to. Although Hugh must be cued to notice that Clare isn't white, to my eyes and to most people I've talked to, Negga's Clare just doesn't look like she could pass. The issue isn't her excellent performance, which has the slippery depths of a lake covered with thin ice; it's her appearance.

Happily, the film is about more than simply the rather dated idea of passing. Hall is herself mixed race. Her maternal grandfather was African American, and I imagine Larsen's slim book filled her mind with teasing what-ifs. It has certainly filled her film with cinematic ideas, from its dreamy shifting of focus to its jarring piano music. Harking back to 1920s cinematic style, Hall uses a small, boxy frame to make the characters feel penned in, even as the gorgeous black-and-white palette reminds us that even in a society defined by Blackness and whiteness, the world is largely made up of shades of grey. "Passing" is at its best in revealing twilit emotional conflicts and not only for Clare, who wants the benefits of being white but discovers the price of that ticket.

Here, everyone is passing in one way or another. Irene's husband passes as a pillar of the Harlem community when he hates his patients and wants to flee American racism for Brazil. The writer Hugh passes as an enlightened man, but his racial feelings are tinged with exoticizing superiority. And then there's Irene, who presents herself to the world and often to herself as a good wife and mother, content with her life in Harlem. Watching Thompson's layered performance, we realize that things aren't so simple. She, too, is playing a role. In fact, the only person who doesn't need to pass is Clare's husband, who enjoys the perks of being a rich and racist white man. He gets to be who he really is. All of this, too, exacts a terrible cost. In the end, "Passing" shows the many-edged truth of a line from James Baldwin - the reason people think it's important to be white is that they think it's important not to be Black.

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the new film "Passing." On Monday's show, filmmaker Edgar Wright. His movies include "Baby Driver" and "Shaun Of The Dead." His newest is a thriller called "Last Night In Soho." It's about a young woman who is transported in her dreams into the swinging '60s of London, where she lives out the life of another woman. At first thrilling, the dreams become nightmares that haunt her waking hours. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WISHIN' AND HOPIN'")

DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying, planning and dreaming each night of his charms. That won't get you into his arms. So if you're looking to find love you can share, all you've gotta do is hold him and kiss him...

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WISHIN' AND HOPIN'")

SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) ...Start. That won't get you into his heard. So if you're thinking of how great true love is, all you've gotta do is hold him and kiss him and squeeze him... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.