Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut “Passing” dives into the nuance of racial identity and the complex realities of racial passing, with Variety’s Sundance review touting Hall’s work: “This radically intimate exploration of the desperately fraught concept of ‘passing’ — being Black but pretending to be white — ought to be too ambitious for a first-time filmmaker, but Hall’s touch is unerring, deceptively delicate, quiet and immaculate.”
Intimate is a particularly choice word to describe the project, as the film’s story holds personal significance for all its cast — including stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, both of whom are mixed race — but the project is particularly connected to Hall’s personal story. Hall is the daughter of famed theater director Peter Hall and legendary opera singer Maria Ewing. And though the British actor presents as white, Hall in fact comes from a mixed-race background, with a generational history of passing on her maternal grandfather’s side.
“I don’t think that I really had language for passing. It was such a difficult area of conversation in my family,” Hall recalls, explaining her personal connection to the material in conversation at the Variety Sundance Studio presented by AT&T TV, just hours ahead of the film’s Sundance premiere.
“It was a question of, maybe my grandfather and maybe his parents [were Black], maybe this, maybe that, maybe it was something else, we don’t really know. It wasn’t framed as this choice,” she continues. “I don’t think I understood the truth of [passing] until I read the book. And then I had a context for it that made sense and slotted everything together in relation to all of the snippets of information I had about my family.”
It was a long road from page to screen for Hall, who adapted the screenplay in addition to helming the film. And the budding filmmaker did encounter some roadblocks in getting the film made — partially because “it’s a black-and-white period film, in four-three [ratio] and the challenges of that, and with a very nuanced and complicated subject matter” — but some of her early effort to produce the film were rebuffed because producers were wary of a (seemingly) white woman telling the tale.
“Obviously, I present as white. I have no experience of going through the world as a Black person, but I have experience of what it is to be raised by people, who are raised by people who have made choices that are configured by living within a racist framework and historically, and that has an effect,” the filmmaker adds. “And I suppose this book managed to unpack something in my relationship to how I think of my own identity — how I think of going through the world, how I want to be how, how I feel. And it also embraces nuance and paradox, which I feel I’m just a sort of walking example of. I felt that so strongly, the complication and nuance in this book, and I loved its potential for poetry. So I just wanted to make it a film for a really long time.”
Based on the 1929 novella by Nella Larsen, Hall’s film stars Thompson and Negga as two mixed race women who lose touch in their adolescence, only to reunite in a chance encounter as adults in 1920s New York. Set amid the Harlem Renaissance, Irene (played by Thompson) lives as a Black woman with her doctor husband (Andre Holland) and sons, while Clare (Negga) is passing for white and married to a wealthy, racist businessman (Alexander Skarsgård). As the two women’s lives become more intertwined, the the narrative turns inward, giving a look into the complicated nature of racial identity and how we’re all are impacted by how the world sees us.
“I couldn’t believe that in a slim 90-something pages, Nella was able to talk about the ways in which not just race is performative, but sexuality is performative, marriage is performative, motherhood is performative,” Thompson says, echoing a line her character Irene has in the film, where she suggests: “We’re all passing for one thing or another.” “I felt that the book is so taut, and yet, it says so much, and it just really haunted me.”
She continues: “And then I really was so awed by how Rebecca was able to really just be able to capture the sort of lightning in a bottle that is Nella’s work, inside of the screenplay. And to be playing with Nella’s words — some of it plucked directly from the novella, some of it, Rebecca’s sort of flourishing on top of Nella’s work. … So it really has been a gift.”
Negga was first to sign onto the project, explaining why she was drawn to the character of Clare after Hall first approached her to read the script.
“I had read the book, and was completely in love with it and haunted by it,” Negga says. “I was so beguiled by by Clare and her refusal to let her light be dimmed, really. And that she has experienced so much loss, but the world hasn’t managed to disappear her [or] her vibrancy.”
“I think she has this source of beautiful stubbornness about her that sort of refuses stricture,” she continues. “Despite having to choose passing as a way of life, for survival, she really, really does try to live with every bit of herself. I found that really extraordinary and I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s how I want to live.’ And that’s how I think we should all be striving to live.”
For his part, Holland adds: “The part of it that I most closely attached myself to, is [my character, Brian’s] sense of restlessness and that sense of longing to live a life that’s free and full, devoid of sort of the trappings of colorism, race and so on. He wants more than he has access to and that was something that was really meaningful to me.”
The film focuses on a wide array of themes, with race, class, gender, sexuality and colorism among them. Of the latter, Thompson explains: “I think that our film is talking not just about the ways in which race is a construction, but the ways in which we pass for all sorts of things in our lives. The colorism, where it exists in Hollywood, is something I think often about.”
“I am obviously helped by that — [while] I’m not a person that can pass, I don’t think, at all [and] I don’t consider myself passing, I’m very happily very clearly a woman of color, more specifically a Black woman — but I’m certainly a fair skinned Black woman,” she continues. “I know that because of that, women like me are afforded more opportunities inside of Hollywood. And that’s just true. I’m trying to unpack that and realize the ways in which I’m a part of that and do what I can, and being really conscientious about the frames and spaces that I occupy and the implication of that.
“That’s something that I think earlier in my career, I didn’t understand enough, frankly,” she adds. “We shot [this film] in black-and-white for a number of reasons. But one was to take out the idea of complexion, actually, and so there was great freedom. And the truth is, if we hadn’t shot in that way, I probably wouldn’t be in this movies because I wouldn’t have been suited for what the role requires in a certain way.”
Noting that “Passing” is not intended to hold a mirror to nor be the definitive analysis of the entertainment industry’s own history of colorism, Thompson says she’s grateful that the film creates space to begin a conversation on the topic.
“I think this film could have been made in any time. But the truth is, there weren’t so many narratives that center Black women in general,” she explains. “And I think sometimes the conversation around colorism, in particular, is just because [Black people] are not lensed enough. And so then when all we see is light-skinned actresses on our screen, of course, it’s a problem. We just need more room. I think there should not be a scarcity; we should all be able to to exist. And I think something that happens is it’s just not talked about enough and we just have to be talking about it more and more and more.”