Passing is a new feature film set in 1920s New York City that premieres on Netflix today. The movie, directed by Rebecca Hall and starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, and Alexander Skarsgård, explores the intersected lives of two women on opposites sides of the color line. Tessa Thompson plays Irene “Reenie” Redfield, a married mother of two who was born and raised in Harlem and has stayed in the neighborhood. By accident one afternoon, she runs into her childhood friend Clare Kendry, played by Ruth Negga, who has been passing as a white woman. The film’s title refers to the Black men and women who had skin light enough that they could “pass” as a white person. The film is based on the book of the same name by Nella Larsen and explores the psychological impact the meeting of the two women has on each other, and how they end up desiring a part of each other’s lives.
Passing is filmed entirely in black and white, utilizing thoughtful set design to reinforce what the characters are seeing and sensing. We interviewed Nora Mendis, the movie’s production designer, to understand how she recreated the Harlem of the 1920s amidst today’s New York. Untapped New York readers will be delighted to see some of the beautiful locations, many rarely seen in most film productions, in Passing.
Nora herself is bi-racial and her grandmother grew up amidst the Harlem Renaissance scene. Her grandmother was known to have “passed” on occasion, much like what Irene experiences in Passing. Nora made use of her childhood photographs to create the lookbooks for the film’s sets and she also took a deep dive into the archives at the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and The Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
“What’s great about this book and this movie is that they both push you to realize the strangeness of race,” Nora tells us. The issues Irene and Clare faces in the story have a “direct parallel to today,” says Norah, and the story makes the viewer/reader “identify with both characters and both of their ways of hiding.”
Here are the filming locations you will see in Passing and what Nora had to say about them!
1. Brooklyn Heights
Passing opens on a hot summer day. Irene purchases a gift for her son in a toy shop. The shop proprietor and the other people in the store assume she is white, but she hides behind the brim of her hat. The spaces in Passing are all racially coded, and all the details down to the items in a store and in the window were carefully researched and curated. Nora says, “You feel the whiteness of the space and of the toys. But not just the whiteness but just the ignorance that people aren’t seeing. They don’t see her, they don’t see her discomfort, they don’t see that this toy is racist, none of that.” She jokes that they even spent half a day researching curbs and what curbs looked like in the 1920s, for the opening shot that just shows the shoes of people walking by.
The toy shop and the street scenes were filmed in Brooklyn Heights. In December 2019, Untapped New York reported on the elaborate set that had transformed the neighborhood into the 1920s. The toy shop was filmed at a furniture store called Holler & Squall off of Atlantic Avenue and other scenes were shot at the intersection of Joralemon Street and Columbia Place. Our set photographs reveal period-accurate signage, awnings, and vehicles.
Nora tells Untapped New York, “We designed these beautiful awnings that were custom made to that space. We did a lot of research on what would have been inside or outside of a store. The way merchandising looks today, it’s not spilling out in the same way, at least not in New York City. At that time though, [as seen] through all my photos, all the references, etc., the things are coming out of the store and so when you’re walking down a sidewalk you should be maneuvering a little bit around the things from inside the store and so we tried to show that. And we got some hand-painted signage in there and painted all the windows.”
While you may not see much of the set that was created in Brooklyn Heights in the film, due to both the close camera work and the aspect ratio of the film (cropped in using Academy aspect ratio), Nora says, “You want the space to feel right and you want to give everybody the freedom to look in multiple directions. You want the actor to feel like they’re in the right space, but then yes, you do end up creating a world that doesn’t get seen on camera, necessarily. But, I’d like to think that it gets seen in the way that the acting is responding to it.”