Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Tessa Thompson: “Passing” With Honors

It’s been a while since I used to give Tessa Thompson lifts home from Santa Monica High School. (She and my son were in the same drama class.) That particular teacher, known to one and all as Doc Ford, had helped launch thc careers of several stage and screen performers, who went on to build careers on film, on TV, and in the cast of Hamilton. Honestly, I would never have picked Tessa as the one most likely to succeed. She was lively and cute, just right for an ingenue part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as the ballet-dancing daughter in Kaufman and Hart’s zany comedy classic, You Can’t Take It With You. I heard she was fiercely committed to her craft, but I never anticipated her as a future award winner. Or, for that matter, on the cover of Time magazine, as she was a few years back.

  I haven’t seen everything in Tessa’s filmography, but up until now there’s been a strong accent on romance and comedy. She had a girlfriend role in the Creed films (starting in 2015), and was a sassy college trouble-maker in Dear White People (2014). Her big action parts, as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and as Agent M in Men in Black: International (2019), allowed her to do a lot of butt-kicking, while also exchanging quips with handsome leading men. She has also voiced the female lead in a live re-make of Lady and the Tramp that features (yup!) real dogs. And in 2020 she collected an Emmy nomination as the heroine of a schmaltzy romantic TV film, Sylvie’s Love. The one historic role she’s played, as civil rights activist Diane Nash in Selma, was something of a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

 No one is likely to overlook Tessa in Passing. This 2021 film, based on an incendiary 1929 novel, was written, produced, and directed by Rebecca Hall, the actress-daughter of famed British director Peter Hall. Her mother was the operatic soprano Maria Ewing, whose tangled family tree made Rebecca take great interest in the subject of Black women who dare to pass for white. This is Hall’s first film as a director, but certainly not her last: her artistic self-assurance is evidence of her talent.

 The film, set in 1920s New York, requires two Black actresses with light skin, both of whom could theoretically succeed in “passing.” The briefer, showier part is that of Clare: she has dyed her bobbed hair blonde and assumed a madcap air that has won her a white husband who’s an unrepentant racist. This role is played by Ruth Negga, the Ethiopian/Irish actress who was a well-deserved Oscar nominee for Loving. She is the sparkplug who makes the story happen, but we can only guess at what’s going on inside her. By contrast, Tessa plays Irene, the apparently contented wife of a socially prominent Black doctor. The Harlem brownstone where they’re raising their sons is a showplace, and she’s a pillar of New York’s African-American community. It’s a role that requires of Tessa a new maturity I had not previously seen. She plays not a vibrant, sexy young lady but rather a serious, sensitive woman. Moreover her part is largely reactive, rather than active: the camera is frequently on her as she absorbs and contemplates the life of the dazzling blonde—her childhood friend—who is now in many ways her opposite.  

 Hall has chosen to underscore the racial issues raised in Passing by filming in black & white,  lingering on floating shadows in ambiguous shades of grey. Yes, it’s arty, but it packs a wallop.. 

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