“My producers stood by me, even though I was a first-time filmmaker asking to make a movie in black-and-white, in 4:3 aspect ratio about controversial subject matter and a period film. They kept saying yes,” she said of producers Forest Whitaker, Nina Yang Bongiovi and Margot Hand at the Sunday night screening.
Hall had a surprising family connection to the film, based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 book of the same name. “Passing” takes place in the 1920s and follows the lives of two Black women, one of whom passes as a white woman, due to her light skin tone, and marries a white husband who is clueless about her race. Hall’s grandfather was Black but passed for white, passing down an ambiguous racial identity to the actor and her mother, Maria Ewing.
“My mother was incredibly moved,” Hall told Variety when she showed her the film. “There were a lot of tears. She said that she felt her father would have been released by it on some level because he was never able to talk about it. This has given our family an ability to not feel like there’s something that’s hidden.”
In addition to themes of racial identity, the movie tackles class, gender and the intersectionality of everything. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga star as the two Black women whose lives become intertwined.
“I also think it’s a film about the ways in which we all pass. Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to be the fullest expression of who we are,” Thompson told Variety. “We pretend to be things that we are not, and that is a kind of a prison in a way. You could read the source material, Nella Larsen’s beautiful, slim, 93-page novella, and assume Clare, Ruth’s character, is passing. In fact, I think Irene, the character I play, is passing for so many things. I think it’s a cautionary tale that if you are privileged enough to live in a time where you can really show up and be who you are, it’s probably the best thing to try to do that for everyone’s sanity.”
In addition to being Hall’s directorial debut, the NYFF screening was the first time for several of the cast members to watch the film with an audience. The cast also includes Andre Holland, Bill Camp and Alexander Skarsgard.
“She’s extraordinary,” Negga told Variety, praising Hall. “Her vision is sound, it’s tight. She was so well prepared. At the same time, you never feel restricted by that prep. She really trusted us as actors to bring what we would bring, and we trusted her what we brought she could mold into something beautiful. And she did. We’re very proud of her.”
“Passing” will have a limited theatrical release on Oct. 27 before streaming on Netflix on Nov. 10.