Passing, having premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, is taking its turn with a theater run before its arrival on Netflix, November 10. Rebecca Hall’s first-time writing and directing feature film is based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. The story resonated personally with Hall who recently sat down to talk about the making of this film, sharing intimate glimpses into her struggles with her own family’s identity and proudly recognizing her heritage.
Pamela Powell: The book by Nella Larsen from 1929, Passing, has a personal connection which I think people might find surprising.
Rebecca Hall: The short version of the story is that my grandfather on my mother’s side, my mother’s American, she was born in Detroit, Michigan, and her father, my grandfather was Black and passed as White for most of his life. As is the case of so many families that have a history of “passing” in their family, that story is necessarily is obscured or hidden and that history is erased because the family closes in and does what the parent tells them to do and hides that truth. He didn’t really express the full capacity of his identity to my mother and she couldn’t, as a result, to me. I was always very struck by it growing up. And I was struck by how my mother looked and I always suspected. I was curious as to why there were only glimmers. If I was to ask my mother, she would always say, I don’t know, maybe it’s possible, that he was maybe a little bit Black, maybe a little bit Native American, I don’t really know. At some point when I was reaching a moment of being quite frustrated with dead ends and trying to find out about it, I got given this book. I mean, there’s no easy way to say it. It was huge for me. It was like having language. I didn’t have the word passing. My mother didn’t either. You know, of course this is what he was doing. Of course this makes sense. This is why my mother doesn’t know so many members of his family. This is why everything is shrouded in this secrecy. It was an access point for me, an historical understanding, and also a way of accessing compassion for my grandfather. But also the book transcended that, that was my access point, but then it also, the book also contains rules. It’s so simple, but its complexity is myriad. Ultimately, she uses racial passing as a metaphor on some level to unlock all of the ways in which any one of us clash between the thing that we think we should be or the thing that we think society wants us to be and how we perform ourselves versus the thing that we actually want, and how much freedom we have in that negotiation of our own identity.
PP: I understand that the script sat in your drawer for more than a decade. What was the impetus for bringing it to life?
RH: Well, it’s not entirely true that it sat in a drawer for a decade. A lot of people ask why did you make this film now? The sad truth is I was allowed to make it now. I didn’t decide to make it now after 13 years. It did sit in a drawer for 6 years. That is true. But there are a good 7, 8 years of me actively trying to get it made, showing it to people and people saying to me at the beginning of the 7 year period, people saying to me ‘This is wonderful but it’s so ambiguous and it’s so different to other kinds of things, and in short, I don’t think you’ll ever get this made. And then people would say, we love it, but could you make it in color instead of black and white? And I just kept saying, no, no, no there’s only one way to do this and I have a very distinct idea as to how it should be and I don’t want to make it any other way. There were compromises that had to happen to do it that way, but that was the process, it was a fight. I’d be lying if I said otherwise
PP: But you won that fight and you used black and white and an aspect ratio that takes you back in time. Why was it so important to stay true to that?
RH: The aspect ratio is, it’s funny because a lot of people say it really transports you to those old movies. There is some truth to that, but it’s not my primary reason for using it. This is absolutely a story about the limits of categories. How nobody can be reduced to one single definition, and how the more bound and restricted or rigid we are about those categories, the more likely we are to combust and spill out the sides which is really Irene’s story, and who is really the protagonist on many different levels.
Black and white, the irony about black and white is that it’s grey, it’s complicated, just as nothing in life that we give these categories to, nothing is simply those categories. Similarly, we have the expression putting someone into a box, all three for me was putting them in a box, restricting them, making them feel constrained by the society that they’re living in.
PP: Has making this film changed you personally looking back or forward in your own life?
RH: Absolutely. Absolutely. I now know things about my grandfather which I did not know at the beginning of this process. I know that my great-grandfather, I know his name. John Williams. And I know that he was born enslaved and he moved to Washington. He was a race man. He was a big upholder of the race. He ended up working in government. He ended up knowing Frederick Douglas. There’s an awful lot to be proud of and that was sadly erased by my grandfather’s choice to pass and now it is no longer erased. I have a chance to claw back some of the pride of my heritage.
PP: Rebecca, thank you for talking with me about Passing.
RH: Thank you.