Netflix's Daring Social Drama 'Passing' Explores the Gray Areas of Identity

Rebecca Hall's directorial debut is a slow-burning period piece set during the Harlem Renaissance about the internal distress that results from one's inability to be their true selves.


Th latest gripping black-and-white movie has landed on Netflix, and like many of the the streaming service’s original Serious Films, Passing is a bit difficult to digest. Set during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1920s, Netflix’s new social drama serves as the first on-screen adaptation of Nella Larsen‘s 1929 novel of the same name, and it also marks British American actress and filmmaker Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut. Starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, the film is about two Black women and childhood friends who are so fair-skinned that they can “pass” as white women, and when they reunite as adults, they quickly realize that they have gone down completely divergent paths.

Irene Redfield (Thompson) has chosen to identify as a Black woman, marry a Black man, and raise two Black boys, while Clare Kendry (Negga) has slipped into white society unnoticed, married a white man who utterly despises Black people, and given birth to a baby girl whose skin is light enough to keep her life-threatening secret safe. Although the monochrome film focuses on the internal struggles of two friends whose complexions yield such racial ambiguity, Passing‘s premise is deeper than black and white.

Of course, choosing between life as a Black woman or a white woman has major implications for Irene and Clare, and upon stumbling back into each others’ lives, they are forced to come to terms with their identities and question whether they can ever be fully satisfied with their decisions. However, the concept of “passing” evolves from a shared characteristic that ironically differentiates the two main characters to a broad metaphor that transcends the film’s exploration of race. As Irene tells her friend Hugh (Bill Camp)-whom Hall describes as a “semi-closeted gay intellectual modeled after Carl Van Vechten”-halfway through the film, “We’re all passing for something or other.”


The notion that most, if not all, of the characters in Passing are hiding their true identities-be it racial, sexual, or something else entirely-for social acceptance is fascinating, but in the same way that Irene and Clare are able to hide within white society, the film manages to camouflage many of its characters’ true selves from viewers. Alas, even if you theorise that Irene is depressed from not being able to address or act on what appears to be a sexual attraction to Clare, Passing goes to lengths to have the deeper details about its characters remain unclear. In fact, the film as a whole can at times feel almost annoyingly ambiguous, but given the fact that it is a faithful adaptation of a Harlem Renaissance-era novel that similarly avoided explicit mentions of sexuality, certain vague plot points get a pass.

However, Passing‘s infatuation with casting doubt and uncertainty stretches far beyond Irene’s fondness for Clare. During the second half of the film, it appears that Irene’s white-passing friend is having an affair with her husband, Brian (AndrĂ© Holland), and although that conflict builds to intense and insurmountable levels, it is never confirmed whether or not Brian and Clare’s friendship ever actually grew inappropriate. Furthermore, our understanding of what happens in the climax scene, as well as throughout the rest of the film before that, ultimately comes down to your own interpretation.

Netflix’s new social drama is a slow-burning period piece that delivers an unprecedented tale about the internal distress that results from one’s inability to be their true selves, and despite a few patches of overly vague storytelling, Passing is a film that’s worthwhile. Presented in a gorgeous black-and-white filter and packed with enthralling performances from Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is both admirable and slightly uncomfortable, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Joshua Robinson is an Atlanta-based contributor for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @roshrisky.


Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.


Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.


BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.


Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.