There was some skepticism when the film adaptation of Passing was announced in 2018. Would director Rebecca Hall, as a white woman, be able to portray the story of two Black women grappling with their racial identity with the nuance and care it deserved? As it turns out, the story of Clare and Irene – friends forced to contend with the way race impacts their lives after Clare reveals she’s been living as a white woman – has parallels with Hall’s own family history.
For the actor-turned-filmmaker (her screen credits include Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Parade’s End and Frost/Nixon), the journey with Passing began 13 years ago, when she started to unpack the details surrounding her own racial heritage. “It was like assembling little pieces of a puzzle,” Hall recalls. It was her Detroit-born mother, the opera singer Maria Ewing, who first sparked curiosity about their roots while telling Hall about her maternal grandfather. “It’s possible that we’re Black… It’s also possible that we’re Native American,” Hall remembers Ewing saying.
Hall became fixed on finding out more about their heritage. “I talked about it in groups of people; I asked more questions,” she says, but it proved challenging to find answers. It was the gift of Larsen’s novel from a friend, which Hall read in a matter of hours, that not only began to bring some clarity, but also introduced her to the term “passing”.
Passing describes a person’s ability to be regarded as a member of a different community or culture than that of their own – in this case, a lighter-skinned person of color “passing” as a white person. Detailing America’s history of racial violence and a hierarchy constructed by colorism, Larsen’s novel – and its screen adaptation – underscores the fact that passing is often more complex than physical identity by exploring the impacts of culture and socialization, too. In the film, Irene learns that, following Clare’s father’s death, the only remaining family members are her white aunts. As a result, Clare is able to convince people – including her husband – that she is also white.
Hall knew instantly that she wanted to adapt Larsen’s novel into a film. “I couldn’t believe how inspired I was by the book,” she says. But she felt that, as someone who had never directed before, Passing might be too ambitious a project for a first-time filmmaker to make.
In the end, her desire to direct it came largely from wanting to honor her own heritage, which she was investigating around the same time. “Given that a large part of why I look white starts with an act of violence… I now know that I [can’t] forget about that,” she says. She acknowledges that she hasn’t had the lived experience of being Black, “[so] it leaves me with the reality that, as far as I can see, race [is] a powerful construct developed by powers of systems of exploitation that required it – and is perpetuated by a system that still does,” she continues. “I don’t get to choose how I present, but I do get to own my history. And that’s why I [wanted] to make a film like this.”
[I’ve discovered that] my grandfather was indeed passing white his whole life [and] he was also passing as Indigenous – as a chief, in fact”
She tells me about her grandfather, the source of her curiosity, and what she’s uncovered about him over the past 13 years – which parallels her journey with the film. “[I’ve discovered that] my grandfather was indeed passing white his whole life [and] he was also passing as Indigenous – as a chief, in fact.” She continues that his father – her great-grandfather – was an activist, or what was commonly referred to then as a ‘race man’. A former slave, he traveled to Washington, DC, where he met social reformer Frederick Douglass and gave a speech to the White House.
It was six years after writing the script and burying it away in her bedroom drawer that Hall began to share it with people. The positive feedback she received gave her the confidence to move the project forward. However, it took a further seven years for Hall to receive the financial backing required and to maintain creative control – for example, she wasn’t willing to concede shooting the film in black and white. “I was stuck with this crunch point in development,” she recalls. “I could either make a film that I don’t want to make… or risk not making it at all.” Eventually, the finances fell into place thanks to Forest Whitaker and his producing partner, Nina Yang Bongiovi, boarding the project. All that was left to do was to find the film’s Clare and Irene.
The casting of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, two visibly Black actors playing passing white women (Thompson’s character is passing briefly in a scene near the beginning of the film), sparked some debate after the trailer was released, but the decision had been a very deliberate one for Hall. “There’s a history of these movies [being] played by white women and I wanted to redress that,” she says of the casting choice. It also came from a desire to put the audience in the shoes of families who witnessed a relative of theirs pass. “You’re left thinking, ‘Can everyone see what I’m seeing? Are they going to get found out?’ The danger is more immediate.” There was also the fact that Hall simply thought Thompson and Negga were the best actors for the roles, having admired both before in various film and theater roles.
You’re left thinking, ‘Can everyone see what I’m seeing? Are they going to get found out?’ The danger is more immediate”
Thankfully, Negga was immediately inspired to work with Hall on the project. “[Her] passion and vibrancy for Nella Larsen’s novel and [her] clarity of vision was so inspiring and visceral; it was irresistible, really,” she says. “It was clear that this is a woman compelled and inspired on a deep, deep level, and that kind of conviction is really intoxicating. That’s a good word to describe the atmosphere of the film and I suppose I used that to inform Clare… the energy of her presence on people is so potent, it’s mind-altering.”
With the film garnering positive critical responses at film festivals and preview screenings, the journey Hall has taken with Passing has, perhaps, brought her some personal closure, too. “The truth is, the 13 years that it has taken me to make this film also parallels the 13 years it’s taken me to get to the bottom of everything going on in my own family,” she explains.
It’s a rare result to be able to discover such a wealth of information about relatives who lived their lives passing. Or, as Hall describes it, for the final pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.
‘Passing’ is released on Netflix on November 10