Roger Ebert Home

Black and White: Rebecca Hall on Passing

Delicate and devastating, “Passing” luxuriates in the gray spaces of racial ambiguity while bringing 1920s New York to life in exquisite monochrome. That it’s the work of a first-time filmmaker—the respected British actress Rebecca Hall—makes the movie’s beauty all the more beguiling. 

To hear it from Hall, no other story could have compelled and commanded her so completely as to become her directorial debut. At the center of this swirling psychological drama, which Hall adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name, are childhood friends Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga). Two light-skinned Black women, both have made sacrifices to their expressions of selfhood in order to navigate the class and social strata of their day. 

One day, Irene has a chance encounter with Clare; the two reconnect as adults, and Irene learns that Clare is living as a white woman, married to a bigoted man (Alexander Skarsgård) who’s unaware of her deception. Irene is unsettled by this revelation, which stirs in her sensations of desire and discontent she’d previously suppressed. Whether done out of convenience, as a survival tactic, or for economic gain, “passing”—the process of being Black but being perceived as white—is a wildly fraught proposition in the story’s segregated New York setting. Perhaps this is in part why it triggers such a complicated internal awakening for both women, one visualized by Hall with chilly restraint and searing intelligence.

Hall first read Larsen’s novella, a small-shimmering gem of the Harlem Renaissance, more than 13 years ago. She was 25. Though the story struck a chord with Hall, as did the concept of racial passing, she didn’t entirely understand why. Grappling with it, Hall decided to adapt the novella, allotting ten days to the task before setting her work aside for almost a decade. Back then, the gaps in her own family history loomed large. The daughter of a white British theater director and a biracial American opera singer, Hall presents as white and had been raised in England without any connection to her racial heritage. “Passing” illuminated the very practice, passed down through generations, that had kept her own sense of identity at a painful remove.

“My grandfather was Black and passed for white his whole life,” she explains. “And it's only really through this journey of making this movie, and spending so much time with this book, that I really uncovered that and understood it. I’ve found out the history of his family now, things that were obscured and erased. I’ve managed to get it back into my family's life. And that's very meaningful.”

Hall speaks inside a suite at the Peninsula Hotel, in the heart of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. The night before, she accepted the Artistic Achievement Award from the 57th Chicago International Film Festival, where “Passing” was screened as both a Special Presentation and part of the fest’s Black Perspectives and Women in Film programs. A few hours before our conversation, the Gotham Independent Film Awards announced its nominations, with “Passing” scoring five—including for best feature, writing, and directing (both for Hall), and acting (for Thompson and Negga). 

As Hall discusses her decade-long journey toward adapting “Passing” for the screen, it’s clear all this acclaim has been both gratifying and galvanizing. Held close for so long, her dream has finally been realized, and it’s resonating far beyond the audience of one she wrote it for. “This is a pretty good day in my career,” says Hall, visibly glowing as she sits down to discuss “Passing” with “It’s probably one of the better days.”

(Disclosure: Chaz Ebert, publisher of this site, executive-produced “Passing” but had no impact on this interview.) 

I know that, when you first read Passing, it resonated deeply with your experience of your own biracial identity. Tell me about staying with this story for as long as you have.

It’s just always felt like such a poignant text for any time. The movie always felt so urgent in my head. As much as I hate to say this, it's rare that the emotional lives of two women of color can be [centered in] a mainstream film. When I was making this, nobody said to me that it could possibly be mainstream. Everyone said, “At best, you'll make an arthouse film for nothing. You'll have to make it for nothing. No one will make let you make it for more.” And that's true: we did make it for a very small budget. But I was prepared to do that to make the film that I wanted to make. Even along that journey, everyone still said to me, “Well, even if you do get it made, you'll never sell it. And even if you do sell it, it's going to be a niche arthouse [picture] that no one's going to really pay any attention to.” 

The fact that we have proved them wrong at every moment just feels, yes, validating but also hopeful about where the industry is going. And the fact that it's got five nominations for a Gotham Award this morning is meaningful in relation to that because it means that [“Passing”] is having mainstream traction, that it is reaching people and being represented.

Increasingly, more attention is being paid in Hollywood to the nuances of racial representation and performativity. “Passing” is examining specific racial practices, from covering to code-switching, that have shaped the experiences and self-perception of many people of color. But as racism informs every social contract that governs 1920s New York (and by extension the psychology of those living there), I’m also struck by “Passing” as a film about the ways racism creates race.

You’ve read Barbara Fields! Racecraft, by Fields and her sister Karen, was a really big book for me, actually. It’s exactly what you're saying: race doesn't exist. It's a fiction. It's a construct. But racism is the most powerful evil that we've come into contact with as human beings, and racism is what creates race. And that, I think, is a really important idea. Nella Larsen didn't have access to that, because there wasn't that scholarship in her time. The things that she's writing about—like intersectionality, and all these different aspects of women under the patriarchy, fluidity around sexual choices and boundaries, homosexuality and heterosexuality—all come into play. But she didn't know that she was writing some kind of intersectional tome. 

She was writing her experience.

Right! And in a funny way, we're more sophisticated and attuned to that kind of nuance now than we ever have been. Even in her time, I don't think people got it, really. They assumed actually that—and I think she was really heartbroken by this, that it’s part of the reason why she didn't write nearly as many books as she should have done—is that while there were some people who really celebrated “Passing,” so many took it at face value and assumed it was a very straightforward morality tale, with Clare being the person who passes and therefore must be punished and Irene being the voice of moral authority. And that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, it's the complete opposite. Actually, what she's saying is that Clare is free. Clare is being herself. And, yes, that might be an objectionable person to you. Yes, she might be manipulative and quixotic. But she's speaking her truth. And Irene, the one who's so obsessed with the rigid confines of her own social performance, is a mess, doesn't know who she is, and is falling apart. And that's radical, actually.

You see how fully Clare and Irene unlock and expose each other through this taxonomy of performances they're engaged in. 1920s New York was so segregated that no one imagines that someone might dare step outside those rigid confines you mention. But Clare does, and she learns how to reposition herself around the axis of racism, where she's in a more insulated position—though this also means she’s engaging in self-hatred and hatred toward other people of color. Tell me about approaching Clare’s performance with Ruth Negga.

In many ways, Clare was easier to write, because of the simple fact that she says what she feels 100 percent of the time. And Irene never does. So Irene was harder because there was always the problem of “How on earth do you expose the interiority of someone whose interiority isn't available to them?” That was a problem. And there had to be a visual language to develop that. But with Clare, we spoke about her as being childlike in a way. She has a toddler's capacity to destruct for the sake of what she wants. It's quite innocent in a way: “I want this, I'm going to take it, and I'm not going to think about the consequences.” The larger point of all of it is that someone like that doesn't get to exist in this society because she’s too destabilizing for everybody, Black and white.

Clare transgresses social norms by being herself. Irene is a striking mirror to that in “Passing.” How the Redfields’ household functions, even the language they use and won’t use at home, exercises this constant, stifling consciousness of class.

A lot of it plays out very deliberately with the casting of the maid Zulena [played by Ashley Ware Jenkins,] and also the look of the house. When we were doing location scouting, I was always speaking to different production designers, and they were showing me pictures. And they would make assumptions about how Black people were living in Harlem at this time. And I was like, “Yeah, but there was actually this bourgeois class within that community that was very affluent.” I wanted to push that to an extreme and make that house really amazing but also completely unlived in and sort of spartan. It’s not fully decorated in a weird way. It's quite minimal. And that's an expression of Irene; it's more of a prison, in its domesticity. 

Irene also doesn't have an easy way to be with her maid, who is clearly of a darker complexion than she is. And that's deliberate and written in the book. But I pushed it even further because, in the book, it's an unpleasant description [Larsen] gives of the maid. And I thought it’d be much more interesting to cast someone the same age as the other two women and who is also, by all objective standards, incredibly beautiful. When the three of them are together, I wanted to make that correlation between wealth, who has the most money, and the precise complexion of their skin.

It’s a powerful way to visualize colorism in the story and acknowledge that upward social mobility is more available to lighter-skinned people of color who can “pass” for white. In that same vein, I appreciated the use of architecture in “Passing,” how your film so often involves characters ascending and descending between different floors. 

When Clare comes into the house, I did construct it very deliberately. Irene is being chased around her house, and it's a maze, and so they go upstairs and downstairs twice in that scene. And everyone kept saying to me, “Why do they have to go all the way up to the top? This is just going to make shooting difficult. And then why do they have to go all the way down? Can’t we just play it in one room?” I was like, “Absolutely not, no.” The structure has to be that she's running away from someone. But you have to get down into the kitchen at least twice, so Irene can have this moment of performing the mistress of the house like she's in control of everything. All she's doing is awkwardly walking into the room and sniffing the pot and then going out again. She has no control over her domestic family life. And she's not cooking. And she's not providing for her children. Someone else is employed to do that. Clare has an easy relationship with having staff at that moment, which is very of a different class and a form of racial privilege, honestly. There’s an ease to “Isn't it great to have someone who can do home cooking?” and to having those stereotypes about home-cooked meals in the Black community.

That you cast two Black actresses in the leading roles also makes “Passing” feel like a reconstitution along cinematic grounds, especially given that you shot in black-and-white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Seeing Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in a period piece stylistically evoking a bygone era of cinema reminded me of Eugene Ashe’s recent “Sylvie’s Love,” also with Thompson, which places Black actors within the historically white tradition of 1950s romantic melodrama. Have you seen it?

Yes, and there’s that same wish fulfillment of the industry if it had been different and been better. It’s very clearly pointing that out. There’s a reminiscence to [“Passing”]. I think we've gotten into a slightly disingenuous habit of going, “Oh, well, Hollywood's never given strong female leads.” It did, but it was just melodrama, and it was in the '40s and the '30s. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford ruled the box office. All of these women were [starring] in the superhero movies of the day, these noirs about the emotional lives of women, often with each other. But they weren't Black women, and women of color didn’t get that opportunity, and we've forgotten about that period of history. Obviously, it was limited and made by men, and there was a very particular gaze on those stories. 

There is a slight nod to that in “Passing” and in its costumes. Very deliberately, Clare’s costumes, and how she presents herself in the movie, are not period-correct. She's often without a hat, and she would never have been without a hat. And she's often in slight shoulder pads, which are a reference to the '40s. That’s all a nice byproduct of the black-and-white and the 4:3, though it's not at all the reason why I did it. I wanted to create a world that was abstracted, metaphorical, and not real. And that allowed me to use Black actors, which was paramount.

To expand on those abstractions, you visualize the idea of ambiguity in stunning ways throughout “Passing.” I love that shot where Irene comes racing down the stairs and her reflection shimmers then vanishes in the glass. How did you preserve that tenor while writing and directing?

I can only root it squarely in my taste and my instincts. It's where I've always been interested as an actor too, funnily enough. I remember when I was acting a lot, people would always say to me, “You only can play one intention; you can't play one thing and its opposite at the same time. That's impossible. No actor can do that.” And I've always been really fascinated by the idea that you can. Because, for me, every character, every story contains two parallel realities. It contains the story that is consciously formed and projected out to the world, how the character wants to be seen. And then there is how they are being seen. And then there is also the actual truth. And sometimes those things can be in complete opposition. 

I think there is a way to show that in filmmaking, and I can't really tell you how. It's just a feeling. It's also not patronizing your audiences. I'm only interested in making art where people have to work a little bit. And that's why the first three minutes of the movie are almost in complete silence. You can barely hear what's going on. I'm trying to tell everybody, you've got to lean in and pay attention. Whatever you put into watching this movie, you will be rewarded for. If you don't put in anything, then you'll just think that nothing happens. 

That engagement is clearly important to you.

Very important. Whatever aspects of your identity you are bringing to the movie will also interface with the movie. That's the work of it. It doesn't really exist without an audience.

It’s reflective in that way, which is also a word I’d use to describe Devonté Hynes’ score. I loved his use of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s “The Homeless Wanderer,” which is such a pretty and winding composition.

I gave Dev a story, more than I gave him the conventional “I need themes, and this and that.” I’d found “The Homeless Wanderer” five years prior to shooting when I was redrafting the script. And I just heard it, and I didn't know what it was. I remember hearing it and thinking, “But wait a minute, that sounds like what the movie is.” It sounded like how I wanted the movie to look, if that makes sense. Then I looked at the track and I realized it was called “Homeless Wanderer” and my mind slightly exploded. 

It occurred to me, “Oh, obviously, this should be the only real piece of music in the movie, apart from the music that's [diegetically] in the movie, right?” If we're going to talk in themes, it's Clare's theme, but it's stuck inside Irene's head, and she can't get rid of it. Every time she's on her own, it just keeps coming back. And it has this looping quality. To Dev, I said, “I want you to write Irene’s theme, but Irene’s theme isn't something that happens in the movie. It's a guy across the street from where they live, who is learning to play the trumpet and hasn't found his voice yet. I want it to start with scales. and then I want, very subtly, as he claws to find his voice, for him to find something that sounds like ‘Homeless Wanderer’ by the end.” It's very subtle, but it's really there. And if you listen to just the trumpet tracks all the way through, there is a whole narrative arc to that.

Larsen’s novel was written 92 years ago, and it reflected the experiences of individuals navigating larger social structures in order to survive. Tell me about adapting Passing with an eye to the ongoing cultural burden of passing and the story’s modern resonance. 

They can never escape the structures. I suppose the thing that, sadly, gets to me about it is that [the processes in “Passing” are] happening over time. And yes, it's dealing with much more rigid structures. For example, if Irene is suppressing aspects of her homosexuality, or even sort of fluidity on that spectrum, then she has no outlet whatsoever. And she probably would have more outlet now. And she probably would have more outlet to realize that she doesn't necessarily find fulfillment from being a mother or a wife. That scene in the town hall, when she's talking to Hugh (played by Bill Camp), you see this flash of someone who's a bit of acerbic and brilliant, and you're like, “Oh, that's the real Irene.” That's the only moment you get, but she doesn’t know who she is. If she was actually free, that's who she’d be. Instead, she's performing the right kind of person. 

That is an aspect of that time, but I think it is still true. We have now a much more nuanced conversation around fluidity, against the rigidity of any of these categories, but the categories still exist. We still personally negotiate how free the formation of our own identity is in relation to the story that society tells us that it should be and the one that we tell ourselves that it is. And I don't think that's gone away. And certainly, as it pertains to race, it hasn't changed that much. Brian (André Holland) and Irene have a discussion about how to raise Black children. That talk still happens today.

“Passing” hits theaters on October 27. Netflix streams it starting November 10. 

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

MoviePass, MovieCrash


comments powered by Disqus