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    Best Movies of 2021

    Even when a film wasn’t great, filmgoing was. But there were some truly wonderful releases, ranging from music docs and musicals to westerns and the just plain weird.Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog,” left, Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” and Ariana DeBose in “West Side Story.”From left: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix; Pablo Larrain/Neon; Niko Tavernise/20th Century StudiosA.O. Scott | Manohla Dargisa.o. scottThe 10 Best Arguments for the Importance of MoviesThis year, it felt to me as if every good movie was also an argument for why movies matter. There is a lot of anxiety, pandemic-related and otherwise, about what the future of the art form might look like. Will everything be streaming except a handful of I.P.-driven spectacles? Will streaming platforms (and their subscribers) be receptive to daring, difficult, obnoxious or esoteric work? Anyone who claims to know the answers is a fool. What I can tell you for sure is that these 10 movies, and the 11 that almost made the list, do what they can to resist the dishonesty, complacency and meanness currently rampant around the world. They reward your attention, engage your feelings and respect your intelligence. Every little bit helps.1. ‘Summer of Soul’ (Questlove)This documentary about a series of open-air concerts in Harlem in 1969, interweaving stunning performance footage with interviews with musicians and audience members, is a shot of pure joy. The lineup is a pantheon of Black genius, including Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, the Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson and many more. But the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety. (Streaming on Hulu.)Mavis Staples, left, and Mahalia Jackson in a scene from “Summer of Soul.”Searchlight Pictures2. ‘Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn’ (Radu Jude)From its hard-core opening to its riotous conclusion, this category-defying Romanian film captures the desperate, angry, exhausted mood of the present almost too well. A Bucharest schoolteacher (the brilliant, fearless Katia Pascariu) finds her job endangered after a sex tape she made with her husband goes semiviral. Meanwhile, the Covid pandemic and simmering culture-war hostilities turn everyday life into a theater of grievance and anxiety. Holding everything together — barely — is the abrasive intellectualism of Jude’s direction and the earnest rage that fuels his mockery. (In theaters.)3. ‘The Power of the Dog’ (Jane Campion)There are a lot of talented, competent, interesting filmmakers working today. Then there is Jane Campion, who practices cinema on a whole different level. The craft in evidence in this grand, big-sky western — the images, the music, the counterpointed performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee — evoke the best traditions of old-style Hollywood storytelling. But there is nothing staid or conventional in the way Campion tackles Thomas Savage’s novel of jealousy, power and sexual intrigue. (Streaming on Netflix.)4. ‘Petite Maman’ (Céline Sciamma)The death of a grandmother, the grief of a parent, the acquisition of a new friend — these ordinary experiences, occurring over a few weeks in the life of an 8-year-old girl, provide the basic narrative structure of this spare, perfect film. Whether it’s best described as a modern-dress fairy tale, a psychological ghost story or a low-tech time travel fantasy is up to you. What’s certain is that the performances of Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, real-life twins playing possibly imaginary friends, have a clarity and purity that Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) deploys for maximum emotional impact. (Coming to theaters.)Joséphine, left, and Gabrielle Sanz are possibly imaginary friends in “Petite Maman.”Lilies Films5. ‘Bring Your Own Brigade’ (Lucy Walker)This harrowing documentary about California wildfires is also, almost by accident, an exploration of the country’s polarized, chaotic, self-defeating response to the Covid pandemic. The picture Walker paints is complicated, partly because that’s the way people are: stupid, generous, reckless and brave. The movie is hardly optimistic, but its open-mindedness, compassion and intellectual rigor provide a buffer against despair. (Paramount+)6. ‘Bergman Island’ (Mia Hansen-Love)In a year when rumors of the death of moviegoing spread along with all the other bad news, it was delightful to encounter this warm, wry, emotionally savvy exploration of movie love, moviemaking and movie-centered tourism. Two filmmakers travel to Faro, a Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked, and discover either that movies are life, or that there’s more to life than movies. (For rent on most major platforms.)Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie in “Bergman Island.”IFC Films7. ‘Drive My Car’ (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)A theater artist (Hidetoshi Nishijima), recently widowed, travels to Hiroshima to direct an experimental version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” A young woman (Toko Miura), also stricken by loss, is hired as his driver. Out of this scenario — and out of Haruki Murakami’s novella — Hamaguchi builds an understated, multilayered meditation on the complexities of human connection. The spirit of Chekhov hovers in the background and is honored by the film’s unsentimental, compassionate regard for its characters. (In theaters.).css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-1kpebx{margin:0 auto;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1kpebx{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-1gtxqqv{margin-bottom:0;}.css-1g3vlj0{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1g3vlj0{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-1g3vlj0 strong{font-weight:600;}.css-1g3vlj0 em{font-style:italic;}.css-1g3vlj0{margin-bottom:0;margin-top:0.25rem;}.css-19zsuqr{display:block;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:’See more’;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-qjk116{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-qjk116 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-qjk116 em{font-style:italic;}.css-qjk116 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:visited{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}8. ‘Memoria’ (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)Weerasethakul’s movies defy summary or easy categorization. To describe them as dreamlike is incomplete, since you never know who is doing the dreaming. In this case, it might be Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish expatriate living in Colombia. Or it might be alien visitors, the filmmaker, the Earth or time itself. What is certain is that this film sharpens the senses and activates emotions that are no less powerful for being impossible to name. (Coming to theaters.)9. ‘West Side Story’ (Steven Spielberg)Somehow, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner — and an energetic young cast of Jets and Sharks — pulled off a surprising cinematic coup. Respecting the artistry and good intentions of the original stage musical, they turned it into something urgent, modern and exciting. There’s a lot to unpack in the movie’s gestures of reverence and revisionism, but mostly there are big emotions, memorable songs and an unabashed faith that sincerity will always be stronger than cynicism. (Coming to theaters.)Ariana DeBose, center, as Anita in “West Side Story.”Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios10. ‘The Velvet Underground’ (Todd Haynes)Like “Summer of Soul,” this documentary revisits the music of the 1960s in a spirit that is more historical than nostalgic. Rather than assemble present-day musicians to pay tribute to their forebears, Haynes concentrates on the Velvets in their moment and on the artistic scene that spawned them. In particular, he focuses on their connections to the experimental cinema that flourished in New York, work that inspires his own visceral, cerebral, visually dense style of storytelling. (Streaming on Apple TV+.)Also …“Annette” (Leos Carax), “The Disciple” (Chaitanya Tamhane), “Flee” (Jonas Poher Rasmussen), “The Green Knight” (David Lowery), “The Hand of God” (Paolo Sorrentino), “King Richard” (Reinaldo Marcus Green), “Mogul Mowgli” (Bassam Tariq), “Parallel Mothers” (Pedro Almodóvar), “Passing” (Rebecca Hall), “El Planeta” (Amalia Ulman), “The Souvenir Part II” (Joanna Hogg), “Spencer” (Pablo Larraín), “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Joel Coen).MANOHLA DARGISThe Best Film Was One in a TheaterIn July, I watched one of the most mediocre movies that I’ve seen this year — and it was glorious. After more than 16 months of streaming at home, I went to a theater to watch Matt Damon sing the white-guy blues in “Stillwater.” The movie was poky and trite and irritating, and I reviewed it accordingly. And while I regretted it wasn’t better, I was still grateful because it sent me back to theaters, big screens and other moviegoers.Those other people admittedly did give me pause. They were masked, well, most were, kind of, but could I be safe and feel at ease with these people for two or so hours? I was vaxed and masked but also still navigating being back in the world. But the room was great, the screen huge, and I decided that I could — though first I had to tell a guy near me that, yes, he did need to wear the mask he’d parked on his chin. He put it on. I settled in, back in the place that makes me supremely happy: I was at the movies.Since then, I have watched many more new releases in person, including at two festivals where I gorged like a famished person (so many thanks to both the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival). I had spent the first part of the year on book leave, and while I’d streamed plenty of new and old films then (hello, Marie Dressler!), I missed going out (anywhere). I missed really, really big bright images and I missed the rituals, including the quick search for the most perfect seat and the anticipatory wait for the movie to begin, for someone to hit the lights and start the show.Movie critics tend to write about movies as discrete entities. Even when writing about franchise copies of franchise copies, we often stick to the object. Although we sometimes share how a movie makes us feel (happy, sad), we rarely write about the true depth of our experiences as we watched these movies — how it felt as the images flowed off the screen and into our bodies and memories — and how this too affected us. There are a lot of reasons for this, including reviewing conventions, which tend to measure movies by certain, traditionally prescribed, often literary and commercial values: Was it a good story, did it say something, is it worth leaving the house for, worth spending money on?It’s a given that money is always part of the equation, as much of the discussion around the future of moviegoing underscores. Most of the chatter about moviegoing these days often devolves into journalists and industry types parroting the logic of capitalism, i.e., whatever industry power dictates. Netflix and other big streamers have had a huge impact, no question, and we can chat about what it all means in a few years. But whatever the rationalization, the reasons there’s so much intense focus on Netflix and Disney is their monopolistic grip not simply on the entertainment industry but also on the hive mind of the mainstream media. But there are other considerations, as well.Benedict Cumberbatch as a malignant presence in “The Power of the Dog.”NetflixSo, yes, more people will likely watch “The Power of the Dog,” the latest from Jane Campion, than any other film in her decades-long career because it’s on Netflix. But what matters is the movie. And you should watch it whether at home or, if you can, in a theater. It looks beautiful no matter the size of the screen. But I’m grateful that I’ve seen it several times projected in theaters. For starters, I could focus on it rather than the distractions of my home, but mostly I could more fully experience the monumentality of its images, could feel on a profound, visceral level both the claustrophobia of its shadowy interiors and the liberating, heart-clutching boundlessness of its open landscapes.Like all the movies I love, “The Power of the Dog” got under my skin. I watched it, fell into it, felt it. And like all the movies I care most about, it is far more than the sum of its finely shaped story parts. I admire its narrative ebb and flow, but the movie’s meaning extends beyond its chapter breaks and dialogue. In Campion’s aerial shots of an arid, lonely land and in the anguished close-ups — in backlighted bristles of horsehair and in the rhythmic rocking of a strand of braided leather on a man’s body — she sets loose a cascade of associations. You see Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays its tormented villain, and in his strut you also see John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood. You see the sweep of the western genre, the men and women you know, the world you live in.1. ‘Drive My Car’ (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)A masterpiece about life and death and art from one of the most exhilarating directors to hit the international film scene in a long while, “Drive My Car” draws from theater and literature — a splash of “Waiting for Godot” but mostly “Uncle Vanya” and the Murakami short story that gives the movie its title — to create a work of pure cinema. (In theaters.)Hidetoshi Nishijima plays an actor and theater director in “Drive My Car.”Sideshow/Janus Films2. ‘The Power of the Dog’ (Jane Campion)Much has rightly been made of Benedict Cumberbatch’s powerful performance as a malignant force named Phil in Campion’s latest. Much more should be said about how delicately and beautifully Kirsten Dunst, as Rose, holds the movie’s moral center with a gutting performance that shows you how brutally optimism can both die and be reborn. (Streaming on Netflix.)3. ‘The Velvet Underground’ (Todd Haynes)Everything comes together in Todd Haynes’s superb testament to a lost world that helped make our own: the music and art, the drugs and ideas, Lou Reed and John Cale, Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas, the beauty and ugliness, the affordable New York housing and the artistic freedom that cheap rents allowed, the droning and strobing and darkening shadows that swallowed people whole. It’s all here. Watch it — play it — loud. (Streaming on Apple TV+.)4. ‘Summer of Soul’ (Questlove)There’s much to love in Questlove’s documentary about a New York concert that took place in the summer of 1969, most obviously the music that takes you higher. But consider too the formal design and rigor, and how the movie contracts and expands in time with the onstage call and response, how Questlove narrows in on a moment of beauty — a soaring note, a sliding foot, a beaming face — only to gracefully expand your horizons as he dialogues with the past, the present and the possible future. (Streaming on Hulu.)5. ‘Passing’ (Rebecca Hall)Set in the 1920s, Hall’s exquisite heart-wrencher centers on two African American women, friends from childhood, who can and do present as white. One (Tessa Thompson’s Irene) will pass for convenience, as when she enters a racially restricted hotel, while the other (Ruth Negga’s Clare) lives as white. Separately and together, with yearning and dueling looks, they negotiate the color line, which W.E.B. Du Bois called “the problem of the 20th century” and that still stubbornly defines and divides this country. (Streaming on Netflix.)Tessa Thompson with André Holland in the drama “Passing.”Netflix6. ‘Azor’ (Andreas Fontana)With chilled detachment and meticulous control, this shocking drama tracks a Swiss banker and his wife on a seemingly routine business trip through Argentina in 1980. As they travel about, the juxtaposition between the bourgeois homes they visit and the ever-present military creates an increasingly unnerving tension, culminating in a shattering finale. Here, every polite smile and bland pleasantry is in service to a world of evil. (Streaming on Mubi.)7. ‘The Card Counter’ (Paul Schrader)For decades, Schrader has been telling his favorite story — that of a man alone in a room, alone in his head — to greater and lesser if always interesting effect. Now, with Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish and Willem Dafoe, Schrader tells that tale again, getting into your head with feeling, some scattershot politics, horrific violence and auteurist confidence. (Available on most major platforms)8. ‘The Disciple’ (Chaitanya Tamhane)Every so often, the title character, a Hindustani classical singer (Aditya Modak), rides through the dark night, the voice of a musical guru filling the air and stirring your soul. Our young singer yearns for greatness, but as the years pass and practice never quite makes perfect, the divide between aspiration and reality grows impossibly wider. In a year of wonderful soundtracks, this is the one that soars highest. (Streaming on Netflix.)9. ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)This movie, the other of Hamaguchi’s to receive an American release this year, is split into three intricate stories that turn on chance and were, he has said, inspired by Eric Rohmer. Not all of the parts work equally well, but all have moments of beauty and grace along with amazing, complex rivers of words. By the time a character rests a hand on her heart in a rush of feeling, you may find yourself doing the same. (In theaters)10. ‘Spencer’ (Pablo Larraín)Larraín’s atmospherically perfect (and creepy) drama is at once a blistering takedown of the British monarchy, a blazing psychological portrait and a queasily funny Gothic horror freak-out. If you’re still chuckling and sometimes weeping over that soap opera called “The Crown,” this may wipe off your smile — or just make you roar with laughter. (Available on most major platforms.)Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer.”NeonAlso!“Bring Your Own Brigade” (a smart, cleareyed, solution-oriented documentary about the climate crisis that won’t leave you curled up in a ball sobbing); “Dune” (yeah, I know, but I dug this immersive big-screen spectacle, the sort Hollywood rarely produces today); “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” (part of this year’s Benedict Cumberbatch wave and a must-see for animal lovers or, really, anyone with a beating heart); “Faya Dayi” (a gorgeous dream to slip into); “The First Wave” (a moving, intelligent, deeply human documentary on the pandemic); “In the Same Breath” (a tough, compassionate look at the pandemic via China); “Licorice Pizza” (especially the truck sequence — I could watch two hours of that amazingly directed, staged and choreographed camera-and-wheel work); “Prayers for the Stolen” (stirring and upsetting); “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” (a gorgeous labyrinth); “Stillwater” (eh, it isn’t good but it brought me back into theaters); “The Truffle Hunters” (a touching lament for rapidly disappearing communities and traditions); “The Woman Who Ran” (elegant, wry, touching cinematic serialism). 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    The Real Surprise of ‘Passing’: A Focus on Black Women’s Inner Lives

    By making the lesbian attraction between the main characters more explicit, the drama moves beyond mainstream Hollywood’s white gaze.Midway through the new drama “Passing,” Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), the light-brown-skinned, upper-middle-class protagonist, offers a unique insight into her psyche when she says to her friend Hugh, “We’re, all of us, passing for something or the other,” and adds, “Aren’t we?”Until now, Irene has successfully maintained her cover as both a respectable wife and proud African American woman. But when Hugh (Bill Camp) challenges her by asking why she does not pass for white like her biracial childhood friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), her response is a revelation, startling me almost as much as it did him.“Who’s to say I am not?” she snaps back.In that moment, I realized that what I had considered the B-plot of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing,” had risen to the surface in the writer-director Rebecca Hall’s adaptation, giving us a narrative that remains all too rare in Hollywood today: the interior world of a Black woman’s mind.When I teach Larsen’s novel to my undergraduate students, I usually start with the obvious: its racial plot and the ways in which Clare finds refuge from racism by identifying as white, only to be tragically alienated from her Black family and community.But I mainly teach “Passing” through what I think is the novel’s real central conflict: same-sex female desire and the paranoia that begins to overtake Irene, and for that matter Larsen’s story line, as a result of her unconsummated relationship with Clare. In a 1986 essay on Larsen’s novel, the critic Deborah E. McDowell explained why this longing had to appear secondary to the emphasis on race. “The idea of bringing a sexual attraction between two women to full expression,” she wrote, was “too dangerous of a move” in 1929. Instead, “Larsen enveloped the subplot of Irene’s developing if unnamed and unacknowledged desire for Clare in the safe and familiar plot of racial passing.”Rather than explore the ways that Irene comes into her sexuality, racial passing — at the height of segregation in America — was considered a far more urgent and thus more conventional theme than that of Black women’s inner lives. As a consequence, Larsen’s novel ended up passing, too, eventually taking “the form of the act it implies,” McDowell concluded.Visually, Hall compensates for the novel’s restraint through stolen glances, flirtatious phrases, and lingering touches and kisses between Clare and Irene. As Irene’s tension mounts, the film externalizes it through other symbols: a loudly ticking grandfather clock, a pot of water boiling over and even her breaking a teapot at a midday social in her home. In these hints, we see both Irene’s desire to break free from the illusion of middle-class domesticity and heterosexuality that she performs, as well as the threat that Clare’s presence poses to Irene’s sense of control.But, to externalize Irene’s internal thoughts and her sublimated identity, the movie makes what is suggested in the novel far more explicit. For example, Irene’s confession to Hugh never actually happens in the book. Hall opted to amp up that moment, she explained in a video for Vanity Fair, because she wanted “to highlight the latent homosexuality and power dynamics” underlying their shared secret.But for all that movie does so very well — its subtle swing jazz score; its beautiful black-and-white montages evocative of the photographers Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems; and the delightful cat-and-mouse performances by Thompson and Negga — it deliberately limits how much access we have to Irene. Such restrictions, after having a glimpse of Irene’s full personality, further reminded me of how few stories about African American female sexuality and subjectivity have been told on the big screen.In other words, at this moment, when Black artists are being celebrated and validated as never before, what does it mean to invest in films that fully move us beyond a racist or sexist gaze and into their innermost thoughts?Five Movies to Watch This WinterCard 1 of 51. “The Power of the Dog”: More

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    This Movie Season, It’s a Black-and-White Boom

    “Passing,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “Belfast” are just a few of the movies that forgo color for a more classical approach.Do not adjust that dial. Over the coming months, whether you’re watching new films on a streaming service or at the multiplex, more than a few of those movies are likely to be in black and white.Films as varied as “The French Dispatch” and “Being the Ricardos” employ several black-and-white sequences, while “Passing,” “Belfast” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth” are shot almost entirely without color. These are all period movies that use the old-fashioned format to evoke a bygone era, but even “C’mon C’mon,” which takes place in contemporary times and has Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist crisscrossing the country with his nephew, was filmed in monochrome.Is this all a coincidence, or a natural next step after recent black-and-white stunners like “Roma” and “Cold War”? To understand why everyone is going grayscale, we talked to the cinematographers behind three of the season’s most striking black-and-white features.‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand set against the film’s austere atmosphere.A24For his new spin on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the director Joel Coen wanted to strip the play down to its barest essence. The result is a fast and ruthless reimagining leached of all color, shot not in wide-screen but in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio rarely used since the 1950s.“It’s meant to bring theatricality, and to lose temporality,” the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel said. “It’s not about the 1700s, and it’s not about Scotland, either. We’re giving an abstraction, but a very creative one.”For Delbonnel, the creative limitations of black-and-white proved intoxicating. “I pushed the envelope even more,” Delbonnel said. “I said we shouldn’t have any furniture, and we pushed this very far: There is only one bed and a couple of tables, and there is no practical light.”All that austerity makes a striking visual impression, but Delbonnel said it was simply in service of the play’s language. The same creative rules applied to the actors Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, who could tackle their roles as Shakespeare’s most fearsome power couple in the most unadorned fashion.As Delbonnel put it, “You say, ‘Denzel, this is the room. There is no place to sit because there is no chair. There is no glass, so you can’t drink. There is nothing you can do, so it’s all about your body language and the way you deliver the lines.’”Still, don’t get the wrong impression: Though this “Macbeth” was made in the spirit of minimalism, Delbonnel often brought in the boldest lights he could muster.“The whole movie is lit with theater light, like you’d see at a Beyoncé concert, which has very, very hard shadows,” he said. “In color, it would be unbearable, but in black-and-white, it looks amazing.”‘Passing’Negga, left, and Tessa Thompson are framed in a boxy aspect ratio for “Passing.”NetflixWhile he shot Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” the cinematographer Eduard Grau was so committed to the film’s monochrome aesthetic that he took all the color off his iPhone, too..css-1xzcza9{list-style-type:disc;padding-inline-start:1em;}.css-3btd0c{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-3btd0c{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-3btd0c strong{font-weight:600;}.css-3btd0c em{font-style:italic;}.css-1kpebx{margin:0 auto;font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.125rem;line-height:1.3125rem;color:#121212;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:700;font-size:1.375rem;line-height:1.625rem;}@media (min-width:740px){#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-1kpebx{font-size:1.6875rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1kpebx{font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.4375rem;}}.css-1gtxqqv{margin-bottom:0;}.css-1g3vlj0{font-family:nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif;font-size:1rem;line-height:1.375rem;color:#333;margin-bottom:0.78125rem;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-1g3vlj0{font-size:1.0625rem;line-height:1.5rem;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}}.css-1g3vlj0 strong{font-weight:600;}.css-1g3vlj0 em{font-style:italic;}.css-1g3vlj0{margin-bottom:0;margin-top:0.25rem;}.css-19zsuqr{display:block;margin-bottom:0.9375rem;}.css-m80ywj header{margin-bottom:5px;}.css-m80ywj header h4{font-family:nyt-cheltenham,georgia,’times new roman’,times,serif;font-weight:500;font-size:1.25rem;line-height:1.5625rem;margin-bottom:0;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-m80ywj header h4{font-size:1.5625rem;line-height:1.875rem;}}.css-12vbvwq{background-color:white;border:1px solid #e2e2e2;width:calc(100% – 40px);max-width:600px;margin:1.5rem auto 1.9rem;padding:15px;box-sizing:border-box;}@media (min-width:740px){.css-12vbvwq{padding:20px;width:100%;}}.css-12vbvwq:focus{outline:1px solid #e2e2e2;}#NYT_BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT_REGION .css-12vbvwq{border:none;padding:10px 0 0;border-top:2px solid #121212;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-rdoyk0{-webkit-transform:rotate(0deg);-ms-transform:rotate(0deg);transform:rotate(0deg);}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-eb027h{max-height:300px;overflow:hidden;-webkit-transition:none;transition:none;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-5gimkt:after{content:’See more’;}.css-12vbvwq[data-truncated] .css-6mllg9{opacity:1;}.css-qjk116{margin:0 auto;overflow:hidden;}.css-qjk116 strong{font-weight:700;}.css-qjk116 em{font-style:italic;}.css-qjk116 a{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;text-underline-offset:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:visited{color:#326891;-webkit-text-decoration-color:#326891;text-decoration-color:#326891;}.css-qjk116 a:hover{-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;}“Even when I was taking photos, they would be in black and white,” Grau said. “You do things like that to see the world without color, to train your brain to forget about that green or pink wall and only look at the level of brightness or darkness.”Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, “Passing” is about two light-skinned Black women: Irene (Tessa Thompson), a well-respected but restless doctor’s wife, and Clare (Ruth Negga), her childhood friend who has been passing for white. A chance meeting in a hotel tearoom reunites the two after years spent apart, and Grau chose to flood that initial encounter with a striking amount of white light.“This is the brightest I’ve ever done a scene in my life,” Grau said. “You don’t see that a lot, especially in dramas, to have such a bright scene without a lot of detail in the whites. It also came from the fact that we didn’t want to clearly show to the audience at first whether our characters were white or Black or mixed race. Everything is so bright that it’s difficult to tell.”Like “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “Passing” is filmed not just in black and white but also in a boxy aspect ratio that recalls some of Hollywood’s earliest feature films. (It may also remind the viewer how limited those movies were when it came to race, a thorny topic that the color scheme of “Passing” serves as a meta comment on.)Grau couldn’t have foreseen similarities with other current films when he made “Passing,” but he said he welcomed this winter’s bounty of black-and-white stories.“I think it is a coincidence, but this is also about love of film, and they are all true filmmakers,” Grau said. “It’s a strong starting point when a director chooses that, a good indication. Strong, powerful visions from directors make for good movies.”‘Belfast’The new film “Belfast” is about Buddy, played by Jude Hill, a young Irish boy coming of age in the turbulent 1960s.Rob Youngson / Focus FeaturesOver 15 years of shooting movies with the director Kenneth Branagh, the cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos has come to see color as both a blessing and a curse.“Color is so brilliantly descriptive in film, and even the color of someone’s eyes gives you so much information,” Zambarloukos said. “But I often find that when I’m making films with Ken, we’re trying to remove information for the audience and present them with what we want them to see.”Their new film, “Belfast,” about a young Irish boy coming of age in the turbulent 1960s, doesn’t eschew color entirely: It’s bookended by two color montages of modern-day Belfast, and whenever our young protagonist, Buddy, goes to the movies, the films he watches come to life in vivid color.But for the most part, whether Buddy is wooing a girl at school or trying to make sense of the conflict that grips his parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe), “Belfast” is shot in shimmering silvers.“In this case, I think we’re using a strength of black and white, which is not to tell you how a person or place looks but how they feel,” Zambarloukos said. “It has a transcendental quality to be of the past and the present. It’s realistic, but it has a certain magical sense to it as well.”Zambarloukos cut his teeth on the format while shooting Branagh’s long-delayed “Death on the Nile” (due in February), which opens with a 10-minute sequence in black and white. But now, after having filmed all those “Belfast” close-ups without color, he admits it will be hard to go back to reds, yellows and blues.“If I saw the same portrait of a person in color and in black and white, most of the time, I would tell more about that person from black-and-white,” Zambarloukos said. “It doesn’t create anything that isn’t there, but whatever is there is so amplified!” More

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    The Secret Toll of Racial Ambiguity

    When Rebecca Hall read Nella Larsen’s groundbreaking 1929 novel, “Passing,” over a decade ago, she felt an intense, immediate attachment to it. The story seemed to clarify so much that was mysterious about her own identity — the unnameable gaps in her family history that shaped her life in their very absence, the way a sinkhole in the road distorts the path of traffic blocks away.The novel follows Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, two light-skinned Black women who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood and shared a friendship complicated by differences in class and social status. When Clare’s father died, she was sent off to live with white relatives, while Irene went on to become firmly ensconced in the vibrant Black artistic and cultural community of 1920s Harlem, wife to a Black doctor and mother to two dark-skinned young boys. One day, while passing for convenience on the rooftop restaurant of a whites-only hotel, Irene is recognized by a beautiful blond woman, who turns out to be Clare — who now not only lives her life as a white woman but is also mother to a white-passing daughter and married to a bigoted man who has no clue about her mixed-race heritage. The friends’ reunion crackles with tension, charged with curiosity, envy and longing.When Clare asks Irene if she has ever thought about passing in a more permanent way herself, Irene responds disdainfully: “No. Why should I?” She adds, “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want.” And maybe it’s true that the respectable, high-status life Irene has built in Harlem encompasses everything a serious woman, committed to lifting up her race, should want. But Clare’s sudden presence begins to raise a sense of dangerous possibility within Irene — one of unacknowledged desires and dissatisfactions. When she sees the ease with which Clare re-enters and ingratiates herself within Black society, it threatens Irene’s feeling of real, authentic belonging.Raised in England within the elite circles of classical theater, Hall, who is 39, had her first introduction to the concept of racial “passing” in the pages of Larsen’s novel. “I was spending time in America, and I knew that there had been vague, but I mean really vague, talk about my mother’s ethnicity,” Hall explained over the phone this spring. Her voice is calm and poised, with a warm polish to it, and she tends to speak in composed paragraphs. Over the year that we had corresponded, Hall hadn’t been acting much and had instead spent time writing screenplays from the Hudson Valley home that she shares with her daughter and her husband, the actor Morgan Spector. “Sometimes she would intimate that maybe there was African American ancestry, or sometimes she would intimate that there was Indigenous ancestry. But she didn’t really know; it wasn’t available to her.”Hall grew up steeped in performance: Her father, Sir Peter Hall, was known for founding the Royal Shakespeare Company and serving as the director of the Royal National Theater for many years, and possessed what she describes as a preternatural ability to know when and how an actor could be gently pushed into an even better performance. Her mother, Maria Ewing, an American raised in Detroit, is one of opera’s most celebrated sopranos, famous for her daring portrayal of Salome in Richard Strauss’s production, in which she followed the Oscar Wilde-penned stage directions to the letter and went nude onstage.After her parents divorced in 1990, Hall lived for many years with her mother in a manor in the English countryside, where she remembers rooms filled with the sound of jazz on vinyl, her mother making herself at home in the relative isolation and remoteness of an adopted country. “I was sort of brought up to believe that I was this — all of which is true, by the way — privileged, upper-middle-class, sort of bohemian well-educated white girl from a very prestigious family background,” Hall said. “And that was sort of where it stopped. And when I asked questions to my mother about her background in Detroit and her family,” Hall said, her voice low and firm, “she left it with an ‘I don’t want to dwell on the past.’”Until a friend pointed her to Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” Hall had no way of naming her intuition that these gaps in her family history were narratively charged — but reading it was a “gut punch.” “I felt deeply challenged and confused,” Hall recalled. “And the only way I could actually process it, for me, was to sit down and adapt it. I didn’t, at the time, think, I’m going to adapt it, because I know it’s going to make a killer film and I’m going to direct it. I really didn’t. It was sort of personal and quiet, and I did it in 10 days.” Then she stowed it away in a drawer for the better part of a decade.Margot Hand, a friend and a producer of “Passing,” the film that was eventually made from that screenplay and that opens theatrically in the United States on Oct. 27 and streams on Netflix beginning on Nov. 10, remembers watching Hall on the set of “Permission,” a film they were both involved in, and noticing how knowledgeable she was about the setup and composition of the shots. When she asked Hall whether she had ever considered directing, she replied that there was only one movie she could imagine herself making as her first film: an adaptation of a novel from the 1920s, based on a screenplay she wrote years earlier. Hand told me that the version of the screenplay that was used in filming is essentially identical to the one Hall showed her years ago — one of those rare artistic impulses that emerges whole and intact, like an egg.As Hall began to consider turning the script into her first directed feature, she knew that much of her vision for the film was nonnegotiable: It had to be shot in black and white, an unpopular choice from the perspective of studios, because black and white can be a harder sell in foreign markets. It had to be shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio that was the default for celluloid film in the 1920s and ’30s but that has since been replaced by wider proportions. And it had to have Black women cast in the lead roles of Irene and Clare — another sticking point in a moment when white actors still command the most star power and box-office revenue. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga signed on early and stayed attached through the years it took to gather the financing for the film, an unusual vote of confidence that Hall credits with the film’s eventually being made.“It’s a big undertaking to have this be your debut, and it’s still so hard as a female filmmaker to get something made,” Thompson explained to me over the phone. “To know that she would trust me with that, because so much would hinge on my performance, really was such a gift to me.”Hall was insistent: To film in black and white was a way of honoring the films that she was raised on, which starred strong female leads like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Myrna Loy. And casting Black actors allowed her to conjure the fantasy of a “lost noir film” that might have had a Black actress in a leading role, while nodding to a lineage of films like “Imitation of Life” (1934). Starring the Black actress Fredi Washington, the film is the story of a daughter who breaks her mother’s heart by deciding to pass as white. Some Southern audiences were scandalized by it because Washington’s light skin, combined with the ambiguity of the black-and-white cinematography, made it impossible for them to discern whether the actress was truly Black or truly white.Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in ‘‘Passing.’’NetflixBut each of these compositional choices also functions to amplify the internal tension of the narrative, to pressurize the pull of Irene and Clare’s relationship. In black and white, the viewer becomes hyperattuned to the shades of gray that form the bulk of the visual image, an anxious gatekeeper perceiving similarity and difference at the same time. In the unconventionally narrowed screen, the two women’s bodies are continually in relation, one occluding, the other hidden, the distance between them always palpable. As Hall says, the framing “forces the face literally into the center of the frame, constantly. And so it constantly says, loud and clear, that this is a movie about faces and how we see them and watch them being seen.” In this aspect ratio, she adds, “there’s no room for escape.” For her, the project has been one of self-discovery and self-reckoning: “I’d say that the whole journey from that day when I sat down to write this to now has been a way of me processing and understanding my family better,” Hall says. “It was a bit of an exploration and also something I felt compelled to do for reasons I had no language for.”For the first half of my own life, I had no language for the sensation of precarious contingency that went along with my multiracial face, a product of a Taiwanese mother who immigrated in the 1980s and an American father with German ancestry. My childhood spanned the 1990s, when multicultural was an aesthetic, a party free of bad vibes. On TV, in the video for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” faces of different races morphed into one another, smiling hugely as they lip-synced the words. In elementary school in central New Jersey, I was asked once a year to bring in a “favorite recipe that shows your heritage” to add to a gradewide cookbook — I turned in the same recipe every time, for pork-and-cabbage dumplings — and on Veterans Day to wear some traditional Taiwanese apparel while sitting on a float that rolled through the park behind my house. Culture was to be celebrated, and as with a good buffet, you could have as much as you wanted, all piled together.If culture was additive, race was a place for optimism, insofar as its projected irrelevance would free the nation of the problems it had caused. Multiracial people were one mechanism through which that liberation would be accomplished: Their existence, and their acceptance and success in America, would be evidence that the country had left behind the violence and inequity of its past. If the nation couldn’t achieve racial equality through the political process, then citizens could do it themselves by creating a new kind of person.Being a symbol of racial and cultural optimism is a strange sign to live under. Your beauty signifies the rightness of the coming transition, its aesthetic balance; your flexibility, empathy and intermingled whiteness comfort those who fear the loss of place or privilege in the coming demographic shift. You are a bridge between the genes of your mother and the genes of your father, a bridge between their cultures — a bridge being a structure that others can use to cross something hazardous. You are a link between past and present that somehow carries forward none of the old grudges.But in the classroom and on the playground, my racial ambiguity didn’t feel like something to celebrate. At some times, I felt illegible and unseen; at others, I felt that my inharmonious features — the unusual shape of my eyes, my odd accent and the gaps in my knowledge of either culture — were bizarrely visible. Other children and some adults asked about me, speculated about me, tried to puzzle through my racial and cultural identity. And in the estrangement I felt in the towns we moved to, surrounded mostly by white people and sensing my mother’s own melancholia at being stranded far from her home country and the languages she was most comfortable living in, I found little in my racial identity that I could use as an anchor.One day when I was 16, alone in the school library during lunch hour, I came upon “Passing” and, like Hall, found it strangely, alarmingly moving. It gave shape and language to the racial ambivalence I experienced that was difficult to place within the optimistic rhetoric that surrounded me. The precarity that Clare and Irene live with, one walking a tightrope between two worlds designated as incommensurable and the other clutching at the apparent safety of a singular, grounded identity, spoke to my own fear of a catastrophic mobility, the feeling that if I didn’t find some way to root myself firmly to one world or the other, I might never find a way to belong anywhere. Texts are always haunted by the unseen — in basic terms, they work to conjure in the mind what they can only point at in words — but this entire book was fueled by invisible, scarcely apprehended drives that seemed to come from society, that spectral presence that moves us all in difficult-to-identify ways.As I read George Hutchinson’s “In Search of Nella Larsen,” the most comprehensive biography of the writer, I found a life that encompassed, at different times, the public-facing dutifulness of Irene Redfield and the lonesome, destructive freedom of Clare Kendry. A mysterious and remote figure who left inconsistent traces in the public record, Larsen struggled all her life to find her place among the categories available to her. The daughter of a white Danish seamstress and a Black cook from the Danish West Indies, Larsen spent her early years in an interracial sliver of Chicago where all kinds of people commingled in saloons and brothels, far from the buttoned-up neighborhoods of elite white and elite Black society. When her mother married another white immigrant from Denmark and gave birth to her second daughter, Larsen’s skin tone prevented the family from establishing themselves in one of the newer, less precarious neighborhoods dominated by working-class white immigrants. After years of tension navigating an increasingly segregated city, her mother sent her to study at an elite, all-Black teacher-training program in Tennessee, where she was expelled after a year, probably for violating the dress code. She returned to Denmark, where she lived for a time as a child.With her Scandinavian roots and little direct connection to the legacy of slavery that defined much of the African American experience, and because she came from a poor background, Larsen never felt fully at home in elite all-Black social circles. After she went to nursing school and became the first Black librarian to attend the New York Public Library’s prestigious library school, her first publications were selections of Danish children’s games and songs. The novelist Walter White, part of the literary community she had begun to associate with, encouraged her to write a novel, and eventually, she wrote two: the quasi-autobiographical “Quicksand” and her second and last published novel, “Passing.” She became one of the most celebrated — and maligned — writers of the Harlem Renaissance, insisting on a social circle that included the controversial white author Carl Van Vechten, whose writings had been deemed exploitative by many Black critics.In her work, Larsen complicated traditional notions of morality or race loyalty. She sometimes wrote about white people, as in the unpublished domestic thriller set in Boston that she wrote and rewrote in her last years as a working writer, as if trying to prove that colored people could enter the minds and lives of white people. After years of disappointments — her physicist husband was having an affair with a white co-worker, and one after another the manuscripts she submitted were rejected by publishers — Larsen retreated. Without telling the remnants of her literary circle, she moved to a different apartment down the block and became unreachable to her friends and colleagues. She quietly returned to nursing and died in the company of colleagues who had little idea that she had been a writer at all.The unusual shape of Larsen’s story, riddled with holes and obscurities, has led many to misread her. When her work was rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s and began to appear on syllabuses, biographers claimed she had embellished her Danish heritage in order to distance herself from African American culture and present herself as European, and therefore more sophisticated. Other critics suggested that she left her literary life in order to begin passing as white. In reality, the proof of her connection to Denmark only required more care and effort to unearth, and though she once boasted in a letter to friends of having managed to have lunch in an upscale whites-only Southern restaurant, Hutchinson argues that she never tried to pass in any deeper, more deliberate way. But the misinterpretations of Larsen and her work point to her predicament: Even as she attained significant success as a writer, she left too few traces on paper to ensure that she would be read accurately. She remained enigmatic, illegible to most.In early August, I took a ride share, a ferry and a public bus to a quiet corner of Martha’s Vineyard to meet Hall at the first in-person festival event she had attended in over a year and a half. Though “Passing” had found distribution and been featured at the Sundance Film Festival, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival would be the first place where an audience gathered to watch and discuss it together. It was the weekend of Barack Obama’s much-publicized 60th-birthday party, a celebration that would have brought hundreds of guests to the Vineyard, before it was scaled down amid right-wing criticism and Covid concerns. I walked past rows of newly painted and neatly hedged houses that looked out onto a still, grassy bay where over 400 years earlier an English explorer from Bristol anchored, traded with the native Wampanoag people and “enjoyed terrifying them with the sound of his cannon,” according to a 1923 book on the history of the island.Hall appeared on the wraparound porch of her bayside hotel in a dark button-up shirt and slim pants — casual, but in a different way from the bright whites and pale colors that covered much of the island. Hall had recently taken part in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series, “Finding Your Roots” (the episode will air next year), and filled in some of the lacunas in her family history that had made elements of her own life feel incomplete or difficult to comprehend. She had shown a version of her film to her mother, sparking conversations that they weren’t able to have in the decades preceding. And “Passing” had been sold to Netflix for almost $17 million, a deal that would guarantee the film the sort of broad audience and promotional support rarely given to intricate, demanding art foregrounding Black women.The process of funding the film had been long and difficult — multiple studios offered Hall funding if she agreed to film in color, but she turned those offers down. Many months ago, Hall felt resigned to the idea that the film would always be a niche artifact, telling herself: “If I have to make it for nothing and it sells for nothing and nobody ever sees it, then so be it. This is the film that I want to make.” She now felt “a bit smug,” and a bit shocked, at the idea that art had won out.Hall’s adaptation cuts to the quick of the novel and transfers the shifting, unsettling quality of Larsen’s text back onto the viewer’s shoulders. The film delves into the gray zone of seeing, priming the viewer to become aware of the way his or her own perception is positioned and constructed. Under the intensive, focused gaze of the film’s long shots, Thompson and Negga deliver performances dense with desire and repulsion. Thompson plays Irene with turbulent restraint, her silences heavy and her speech shaped and structured by unseen constraints, while Negga’s Clare is dazzling and appetitive — her mobility, and the zest with which she transgresses boundaries of race and class, expose the falseness of the racial categories upheld by white and Black alike.The film feels timeless, closer kin to the moody, claustrophobic psychological landscape of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” or the taut, covert romance of Todd Haynes’s “Carol” than to other films that depict the same period. In this way, though set with care and historical fidelity in the 1920s, it’s not a film about the past or even about the social conditions of Larsen’s America, but about the way choices made during Larsen’s time reverberate through succeeding generations. It highlights the psychic afterlife of racial trauma — the quiet holes pressed into the psyche by self-denial.Like some long-limbed people, Hall has a tendency to fold herself up on the furniture in a disarming way, tucking her feet beneath her on the wicker sofa as she held a cup of green tea that I never saw her drink from. The researchers on “Finding Your Roots,” she told me, traced her mother’s side of the family tree as far back as her great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. She learned that her great-grandfather, whose name was John William Ewing, was born into slavery but found government work post-abolition in Washington, and even gave the toast for Frederick Douglass at a banquet in his honor. Her great-grandmother was a free woman of color, descended from one of only 5,000 Black men who fought on the side of the rebels during the Revolutionary War. But against the background of so much lineage lost and recovered was the discovery of the exact point at which the narrative had broken. “The revelation,” she said, “was that it was just my grandfather who passed — just that one act that erased a huge amount of history, including some stuff that’s really extraordinary.” She spoke carefully, pausing often. “The irony is his father was a race man. His father was someone who wanted to uplift.”I pointed out how rare it was for a person to have the chance to make a decision that so rapidly shifts the path of his descendants, a complex, psychological decision that erased anyone’s ability to find out why he made it. Hall nodded. “And if you know that it happened, it passes on a legacy that’s” — she trailed off, searching for the right term — “so confused, you know? Because if you’re the child of the parent, and you believe them to be doing the right thing, or hiding something by living in secret, then your obligation to the parent is to do what they do.” When I asked if her mother ever told stories about her own father that might shed light on why he chose to pass, or what his experience was like afterward, she told me that her grandfather was an artist and a musician, and this is part of what made them close — her mother learned to sing from imitating records in the basement of the family house. She left home soon after he died when she was 16, Hall said, gaining admission to the Cleveland Institute of Music against the odds and later moving to the Barbizon Hotel in New York, and eventually to Europe, where she sang in Salzburg, in Milan, in London.Hall didn’t know if her grandfather was a sort of anchor for her mother, whether his death caused her to leave home. But her mother did talk, Hall said, about an event that was very disturbing for her. “Her father was driving her home from somewhere. And they got out of the car, and there was a neighbor who my mom described as having a long yellow braid on one side. She was a white lady who had always been very nice to them. But as they were getting out of the car, this woman just turned around and said, ‘Why don’t you die?’” The woman added a toxic racial epithet. “And worse, that was not long before he died.” Her mother was very confused. She would tell this story, Hall said, but mostly avoided speaking about that time. I find myself haunted by it. I include it here even though I’m not sure what exactly the story signifies. What had happened to transform the neighbor’s view of her grandfather? Had her grandfather’s history of passing come to the surface, however carefully he hid it? In the end, it’s a narrative with a deep hole at its center, one that mirrors others in Hall’s family, a break in the telling that can’t be filled in through any amount of genealogical research or archival work.At the start of the golden hour, I made my way across the island to a reception on the deck of a waterfront restaurant, a celebration of the screening that would happen in a couple of short hours. Guests were already there, piling plates with beet salad and seafood. The atmosphere was warm and easy. When Hall and Spector appeared, a line formed in front of them, and I listened from nearby as they traded thanks with producers and attendees. A woman with straightened black hair, who appeared to be in her 50s or 60s, approached. She thanked them for coming and then added that the film was meaningful to her because her aunts lived their lives passing as white. “Because they passed and we didn’t, they didn’t want to be seen with us,” she explained.Hall’s film has cracked open a public conversation about colorism, privilege and secrets. On Twitter, people are sharing stories and black-and-white photographs of a grandmother’s cousins who moved out of state, great-aunts who sneaked back to see their family in secret, relatives who lost their jobs when co-workers informed management about their identities: a public airing of what in Hall’s family was once closely held. Recently one of her mother’s sisters reached out: She said that they never really had language to understand the hidden context that shaped their family, and she thanked her for giving it to them.Other responses pointed to the ways that racial categories continue to shape our collective thinking. When the trailer for the film debuted on social media, it prompted a deluge of tweets. Some shared memes featuring the movie title alongside photos of multiracial celebrities like Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph and Thandiwe Newton — the implication being that these lighter-skinned actresses would be a better fit for the roles or that they were continuing to benefit from the ability to pass as white in Hollywood and beyond. That so much of the discussion circulated around Thompson’s and Negga’s ability to successfully pass as white felt surreal, a return to a type of racial scrutiny that seems antithetical to the project of both the book and its adaptation. One Twitter user explained that in Larsen’s day, passing did not necessarily mean persuading others that you were white, only persuading them that you were “not-Black.” Another suggested that the director was trying to heighten tensions with the casting, reminding the viewers at all times of the possibility that the characters would be found out.From right: Rebecca Hall, Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson on the set of “Passing.”Emily V. Aragones/Netflix“There’s a real irony in this, in that the people who can really pass like me are challenged sometimes about whether they’re really, truly Black,” Mat Johnson, an African American novelist of mixed descent, told me over the phone. “So we have this paradox where some of the same people who would be like ‘Well, he’s not really Black,’ or ‘She’s not really Black,’ also feel real ownership about the idea of passing being a part of the African American experience. It’s interesting because even that discussion is about who owns the story of passing.”“Passing” is re-entering the culture at a moment when being multiracial is viewed in a more sober, realistic light than it was when I was growing up. In recent works like Johnson’s graphic novel “Incognegro,” Danzy Senna’s “New People” and Brit Bennett’s best-selling “The Vanishing Half,” authors have rewritten the literary tropes of Black passing to probe its blind spots and challenge the notion that the color line has been erased within American society. If earlier notions of a cohesive “mixed race” identity failed to materialize, who could be surprised? No grand unifying theory of multiraciality can account for the multiple, highly specific ways in which individuals reconcile their own hybrid backgrounds, or for the particular way in which Blackness resists assimilation into both whiteness and the middle ground of the mixed.“I’ve seen Black people around me getting interested in their family history start to do their research and realize that to be Black in America necessarily means having some non-Black ancestry,” Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of the novel “Libertie,” told me in a recent conversation. “Genetically, many of us have about 25 percent white DNA within us. To be Black, this thing that we say is readable and defined as necessarily separate from whiteness, literally usually means for most of us that we are, in fact, intertwined with it,” she said. “Hopefully what that will do is force people to have more complicated discussions about what it means to share all of this DNA when we still have this system set up to reward those who are closest or closer to whiteness.”Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve noticed more people bypassing the conundrum of what it means to be racially mixed in order to define themselves in terms of who they feel themselves to be, how they lay claim to their cultures, how they themselves conceptualize racial boundaries. Many choose to identify as wholly Asian, or wholly Black, or to identify as multiple full identities rather than fractions of a diminishing whole. You could say that there are potentially as many racial identities as there are racial stories, and the more fulfilling work is to dwell in these stories rather than in their categorization. In the end, narrative may the best tool we have for binding together the disparate elements that make up the self.Alexandra Kleeman is a professor at the New School and the author of two novels, “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” and “Something New Under the Sun.” Carly Zavala is a photographer who was born in Venezuela and is based in Brooklyn. She was a nurse for 15 years and is known for her play with light and shadow to create emotive and moody images. More

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    In-Person New York Film Festival Unveils Lineup

    Opening with Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” the event will include the body horror tale “Titane” and the Harlem Renaissance adaptation “Passing.”The Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Titane,” about a serial killer with rather unorthodox sexual tastes, and the Sundance critical hit “Passing,” an adaptation of the Harlem Renaissance novel by Nella Larsen, are among the highlights of the 59th New York Film Festival, organizers announced on Tuesday.After last year’s virtual edition, screenings will be held in-person with proof of vaccination required, although there will be some outdoor and virtual events. (More details on pandemic protocols will be released in the coming weeks.)As previously announced, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Joel Coen’s solo directing debut, will play opening night, Sept. 24. A take on the play by Shakespeare, it stars Denzel Washington in the title role and Frances McDormand, the director’s wife, as Lady Macbeth. The centerpiece of the festival will be “The Power of the Dog,” the first Jane Campion film in more than a decade, and “Parallel Mothers,” from Pedro Almodóvar, will be the closing-night title.The main slate will feature a mix of premieres and highlights from earlier festivals. The body horror tale “Titane” made headlines last month when its director, Julia Ducournau, became only the second woman (after Campion in 1993) to win Cannes’ top prize. Other titles from the French festival heading to New York include “Benedetta,” Paul Verhoeven’s 17th-century lesbian nun potboiler; “The Souvenir Part II,” Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her 2019 semi-autobiographical drama about a film student in 1980s London; and “The Velvet Underground,” Todd Haynes’s documentary about the band synonymous with Andy Warhol’s New York.From Sundance, “Passing,” directed by the actress Rebecca Hall, who adapted Larsen’s 1929 novel, stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as childhood friends who reconnect from opposite sides of the color line. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated “Flee,” which won the Sundance world cinema documentary prize, focuses on a gay Afghan refugee in Denmark.Other titles of note include Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island,” starring Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth; the comic-drama “Hit the Road,” from Panah Panahi, son of the Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi; and two films from the Korean director Hong Sangsoo, “In Front of Your Face” and “Introduction.”Passes are on sale now; tickets to individual films will go on sale Sept. 7. Go to filmlinc.org for more details. More

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    Sundance Diary, Part 4: Contending With Snow and Tech Support

    #masthead-section-label, #masthead-bar-one { display: none }What to WatchBest Movies on NetflixBest of Disney PlusBest of Amazon PrimeBest Netflix DocumentariesNew on NetflixAdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storySundance Diary, Part 4: Contending With Snow and Tech SupportThe New York weather adds a Park City ambience, but watching online from home presents un-festival-like obstacles.A scene from Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated “Flee,” about an Afghan refugee in Denmark.Credit…Sundance InstituteFeb. 1, 2021A.O. Scott, our critic at large, is keeping a diary as he “attends” the virtual Sundance Film Festival, which runs through Wednesday. Read previous entries here and here.Sunday, 10 p.m. Eastern time: The arrival of snow in New York definitely adds a taste of authentic Park City-in-January atmosphere, except of course that I don’t have to slog through the blizzard to get to screenings. Which is mostly a relief, even as it removes an essential element of self-congratulation from the festival experience. Critics and journalists like to compete over who can see the most movies in a single day. Four is pretty basic. Five gives you something to feel smug about. Six is impressive, though not everyone will believe you.But at home, watching six movies feels less like a rare and heroic feat of journalistic stamina than an all-too-usual, somewhat pathetic exercise in quarantine self-care, akin to taking in a whole season of “The Great British Baking Show” in one sitting. That isn’t something I’d brag about or even admit to having done. Also not something anyone would pay me to do, I don’t think.Anyway, for the record (and for the money): Today’s viewing included four documentaries and two features. I didn’t make it to the end of each one — walking out of movies is one of the guilty pleasures of festival-going. The highlights were two documentaries about contemporary American adolescence: Peter Nicks’s “Homeroom,” which follows a group of Oakland high school seniors through the tumult of the 2019-20 academic year; and Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s “Cusp,” which observes a summer in the lives of three Texas teenagers, Aaloni, Brittney and Autumn.Michael Greyeyes in a scene from “Wild Indian,” directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.Credit…Eli BornMonday, 11 a.m. Eastern time: This morning I am unable to log onto the Sundance site to catch up on movies I missed over the weekend, a frustration that mirrors the experience of being shut out of a screening, without the trek through ice and snow. While the tech support people process my plea for help, I’m reviewing my notes from the weekend.“Flee,” directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is an animated documentary organized around the memories of an Afghan refugee living in Denmark. It’s reminiscent of “Persepolis” in some ways — a personal, family story of displacement and self-reinvention set against a background of war and political struggle — but with its own tactful, melancholy aesthetic.“Wild Indian” is a strong debut by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., the kind of spare, locally grounded, socially conscious drama that is a Sundance staple. “Passing,” Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of the Harlem Renaissance novel by Nella Larsen, is a subtle, somewhat mannered meditation on race, identity and desire, shot in evocative black and white and anchored by the intriguing lead performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as childhood friends who re-encounter each other as grown women living on opposite sides of the color line.The glitch has been corrected. Back to the screening room, to make up for lost time — as soon as I shovel some snow.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More