How Netflix has sold a movie about racial identity.
Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, Passing tells the as Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and her childhood friend Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga). Now grown women, Reenie goes about her life fully embracing her black identity while Clare, more light skinned and married to a white man, “passes” as white. As the two reunite for the first time in years their different approaches lead to conflict between them as the question of what is or isn’t authentic comes between them.
The movie marks the first directorial effort from actress Rebecca Hall and arrives on Netflix this week after a campaign that’s leaned into the push and pull of the two characters as well as Hall’s journey to making the film.
announcement and casting
The movie got on a lot of people’s radars quickly when it was announced in 2018 this would be Hall’s directorial debut and would feature an impressive cast.
It wasn’t until about two years later that a release date was announced.
The movie was among those scheduled to screen at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it got positive reviews, especially for Hall’s direction and Negga’s performance.
Shortly after that festival debut Netflix acquired the film following a brief period of speculation.
the marketing campaign
In a substantial feature story from around the time of Sundance, Hall talked about the process of making her directorial debut, including how she used her personal experience with similar subject matter to convince the studio to give her the job. Negga and Thompson also talked about how they got involved and what it was like to work with Hall.
Hall and the cast participated in a video panel conversation during the virtual Sundance festival. Also during the festival Thompson and Hall talked about how both of them immediately cleared their schedules in order to be part of the film.
A featurette from Dolby had Hall and Almada talking about the story and how they crafted the film using that company’s technology and more.
In August Hall was interviewed about another project but spoke about how this movie was driven by questions she had about her own family and more.
The trailer (790k YouTube views) was finally released in mid-September, opening with Reenie and Clare meeting when both are at a swanky restaurant. The two are friends but not really, having very different ways of looking at the world and making their way in it. In particular, Clare insists on passing as white while Reenie has no interest in doing so. There’s jealousy in both directions as each sees things to both envy and dislike in the other.
“Nothing is black and white” promises the poster, released at the same time. Clare and Reenie are shown back to back, the color of the background they’re placed against signaling the racial identity they’re chosen/accepted for themselves.
Thompson, Negga, Hall and others all appeared at the New York Film Festival screening of the film where all were interviewed about the process of making the film and working with first-time director Hall. The movie also screened at the Chicago Film Festival in October.
Unsurprisingly the book the movie is based on was selected as the inaugural title in Netflix’s newly-launched book club.
Just recently it won the U.S. Narrative Feature Jury Award at the LGBTQ Film Festival NewFest.
Another interview with Hall included her talking about how for seven years her efforts to get the film made were rebuffed by studios and producers who didn’t believe there was any audience for it.
As a longtime fan of Hall’s work, it’s great to see her positioned here as the public face of the movie’s campaign, even more so than the two leads. In fact it’s actually a bit surprising to see that Thompson and Negga weren’t given more to do, but the message Netflix is sending is that it’s Hall’s story, and a personal one at that.