Film - Passing

With the film coming to Netflix next week, read an interview with Passing writer/director Rebecca Hall... 

Press Release

Adapted from the celebrated 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, PASSING tells the story of two Black women, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Academy Award nominee Ruth Negga), who can “pass” as white but choose to live on opposite sides of the color line during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in late 1920s New York. After a chance encounter reunites the former childhood friends one summer afternoon, Irene reluctantly allows Clare into her home, where she ingratiates herself to Irene’s husband (André Holland) and family, and soon her larger social circle as well. As their lives become more deeply intertwined, Irene finds her once-steady existence upended by Clare, and PASSING becomes a riveting examination of obsession, repression and the lies people tell themselves and others to protect their carefully constructed realities.

Acclaimed upon its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, PASSING marks the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall, who also adapted the screenplay. The film intimately uses the notion of “passing” to explore not just racial identity but gender and the responsibilities of motherhood, sexuality and the performance of femininity. PASSING also stars Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, and Alexander Skarsgård; and is produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi (p.g.a.), Forest Whitaker (p.g.a.), Margot Hand (p.g.a.), Rebecca Hall (p.g.a.).

When were you first acquainted with Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel on which PASSING is based? What inspired you to adapt it for film?

I read it for the first time about 13 or 14 years ago when I had been spending a lot more time in the US, and had started to ask a lot more questions about my American family. There had always been vague talk about my grandfather being Black, and passing for white although it was never framed that way. He was light skinned, he married a Dutch woman and lived in a white neighborhood and raised his children as white. Everything I knew about him was composed of discrete bits of information that would slip out and then be covered over again in uncertainty. I never knew him. He sadly passed when my mother was a teenager and a lot of the answers to these questions went with him. If I look at my mother now I can see clearly that she is of African ancestry, but that wasn’t clear to me as a child. It just wasn’t something we spoke about and I’m not even sure it’s something her family spoke about either. At some point I got a bit more inquisitive about trying to pin down the facts. It was made clear that yes, my grandfather was Black, and was white passing most of his life.

I grew up in the UK, very disconnected from Detroit and the world my mother had grown up in, and I felt pretty alienated from this newly revealed heritage. I mentioned all of this to a friend of mine, and he suggested I read Passing. The feeling I had at the time was just this shock of recognition. I knew these characters, and knew them in a way that I found confusing. I didn’t know why they should feel so familiar. I finished the novella and started writing the script almost immediately in some sort of attempt to get to grips with that feeling. Over the years I think what I’ve come to is that even though I am a person who presents as white, and as such don’t experience the day to day pressures of being black in this country, I am also a person who grew up in a family that has been shaped indelibly and painfully by the legacy of racism, in particular the legacy of racial passing. Many family dynamics I had always conceived of as more or less strictly psychological, I now think of as much more socially and economically determined. Of course those things are always intertwined, but as I considered this question it became undeniable to me that this history had been a powerful influence on my upbringing and my family. In the end I decided that I needed to make this film both because of where I come from as a filmmaker, and the kind of cinema that I love, and also because making this film is my way of reaching back into my own family with compassion, generosity and love towards those who formed their identities in a world that feared and despised them.

What was your approach to adapting Larsen’s novel? How much freedom did you feel to reinvent and expand upon it?

The first part of it was fairly haphazard. I read the book, I put it down and wrote the script. In about ten days I had a draft. I figured the parts that meant something to me would stick and my brain would fill the gaps needed to make it into a film. I tried not to censor myself too much because at the time I was doing it entirely for myself. I didn’t think it would turn into anything more than a distant file on my laptop. The night I finished that draft I happened to go to an event attended by David Bowie, who is absolutely one of my artistic heroes. I was completely starstruck, but he was very gracious and easy to talk to and we ended up talking about books. Up until that point whenever I mentioned Passing no one had heard of it, but Bowie cited it as one of his favorite novels. The following day he sent me a relatively hard-to-find biography of Larsen and a note of encouragement to follow through with the idea of making it a film. I suppose after that I took it more seriously. I researched and read a lot and then did another draft with all of that knowledge incorporated. 

You assembled a truly remarkable cast with Tessa, Ruth, Alexander, André and Bill.

I was really pinching myself. I definitely had a moment, maybe the week before shooting, where it just dawned on me that I had a cast comprised pretty much entirely of my first choices. And I couldn’t wrap my head around that. I feel very fortunate. I mean, it was just ridiculous, really, given it was my first film. And they had no real reason to trust me. I think that they trusted Nella Larsen, really. I did. It was a bit of a coup. I mean, they’re all phenomenal. 

Both Tessa and Ruth feel perfectly cast and yet at the same time, they are skillful enough it feels like they could have played either role.

That was sort of the thinking: It’s got to have that feeling that both of these actresses could be capable of playing the other part, because they’re two sides of a coin on some level, even though they’re completely different, but there is this sense of What if different choices had been made, how would I have behaved in this person’s shoes? And this kind of longing and desire for the other one’s life at all times. The three of us talked about it as a love story all the time. When Clare chooses to shine the sunshine on you, then everybody around her melts, including Irene, and your world feels wonderful. And I think Irene is deeply seduced by that. And Clare knows that. And Clare is deeply seduced by Irene and the kind of person that she could have been in another life. So there is a lot of erotic subtext actually.

Alexander Skarsgård has a very difficult job in this film as Clare’s unwitting white husband who is also plainly racist. Was there a lot of conversation around how to calibrate his character?

He was keen to make him a human being and not a villain. And I kept pointing out that actually, he’s written that way, both in the book and the script. He is a product of that time, and you can’t hide from the fact that he is also a racist. The book is much more explicit with its language, in a way. I chose to go for less. I didn’t want him to overuse those words, but it was necessary for them to be used once, because I think it is the trigger point by which Irene holds all of this conflict about whether she can have a relationship with Clare or not, because of the experience that she had in that room with this man. But we had a lot of conversations around that and what that would mean to a modern audience and how we could show that and also how we could make him a credible human person, which I think he did.

One of the most intangible things the film gets at is that insidious, insistent sense of dread that anyone passing must feel, that it could all fall apart in an instant and in some ways, that danger is part of the allure.

Absolutely. And I think Clare has walked through the world as this representation of duality in every possible sense. And she’s a conflict zone for everyone because of that. In a way, unlike other depictions of characters who pass, that are often in this sort of moral quandary and punished and so forth for making the morally objectionable choice, with the judgment placed on them, Clare is portrayed in many ways as being the most free because she just walks through the world taking what she wants. She’s Black when she wants to be and white when she wants to be. She’s gay when she wants to be and straight when she wants to be. She behaves like a man when she wants to and she behaves like a woman she wants to. She’s just living her life and getting what she wants out of it. And that’s absolutely de-stabilizing and horrifying for everyone around her, specifically, Irene, who has chosen to take what in her mind is the morally righteous path Clare sees herself as beyond morality, as un-safe. And of course her secret contains a seed of danger. But Irene, who thinks of herself as safe and respectable, is essentially a powder keg. The life she’s built for herself is incredibly brittle, based on a set of illusions that are always at risk of crumbling completely. Which of these women is betraying herself more deeply? The woman who hides her race, or the woman who hides everything else about herself? It’s a pretty subversive question and it’s at the core of the novel.

How has your work on PASSING informed your own understanding of identity as it relates to race?

Well, I’ll say this. I think identity itself is very slippery, very contingent and situationally determined. So from the perspective of an individual, or let’s say one of these characters, race sometimes is, and sometimes is not, a salient part of their identity in a given moment. But from the perspective of the world these characters live in, race is the most dominant aspect of their identity every day, all the time. Within the microcosm of Harlem, inside Irene’s house, all of the complexities of these women are available to us. They are wives and mothers who are forced into certain corners by the expectations of others, they are relatively bourgeois, they are light skinned in a world where that implies a position in a hierarchy, they are intellectuals in a society of intellectuals, they are connoisseurs of music and art, they are philanthropists, possibly they are queer in some distant, unrealized way. They are in some ways free and privileged and in other ways powerfully repressed and oppressed. But through the eyes of a racist society, race obscures and overrides a great deal of what constitutes their actual humanity. And of course these women are also obscuring much about themselves, often even from themselves, at the same time. What I’m saying is that identity is hopelessly complex, and that’s before you layer in race, and the dangers of living in a violent, racist society. 

And even though it is set in the past, there are certainly echoes and reverberations with the current moment. 

It just feels that the movie happened when it needed to happen. I mean, I was trying to make it happen for a very long time and now from the vantage point of it having been made, it seems that it was made at precisely the right moment, both for me personally, and for the film going out into the world.

Why did you decide to shoot the film in black and white and what other stylistic decisions did you make while filming to emphasize the setting of the story?

Part of the concept of this film was to turn it into the great, female driven 1930s noir it should have been if Hollywood studios had made noirs with Black female leads in the ‘30s. That was the genesis. The fantasy of discovering this lost film that might have existed in a better world. It also takes color out of the realm of the real and renders it abstract, conceptual. The world isn’t black and white as our eye perceives it, and so we know when we watch a black and white film that we’re engaged in a process of translation. This is true of how we perceive race, as well. No one is literally Black or white, obviously, and yet these categories are so important that we automatically translate what our eye actually perceives into something conceptual. It’s a similar process, which this film tries to call attention to, and hopefully complicates. 

On a practical level too, for obvious reasons I knew I had to cast Black women to play these parts. Most previous films about racial passing have used white actors, and I didn’t want to do that. So there’s the question of credibility to deal with. Because black and white film takes us a bit out of reality, it allowed us to play with light and context in a way that helped support that. The first scene with John in the hotel has to be the magic trick that convinces the audience that in this world, both women are credibly white. So yes, the room is awash in light, which in grayscale makes skin tone a bit harder to pin down. But we also see that this self-described racist never doubts for a second that both women are white. If that’s because John isn’t observant, or because he’s an idiot, it doesn’t help persuade the audience. In color I think that’s what we would have seen. But in black and white, where shade and tone are more symbolic, what we see is that because John is being introduced to a friend of his wife, who he knows (or has decided to believe) is white, and because in his racist logic a white woman could never be friends with a Black woman, he naturally assumes she too must be white. Later when he meets Irene on the street with another Black woman, she immediately looks Black, the syllogism is reversed, and all of his carefully constructed illusions are undermined in one fell swoop. The power to determine who is and isn’t Black is part of John’s power as a white man in a white dominated society, but it’s clear too how slippery the “reality” of race actually is. 

Another thing that has remained pretty constant over many years is the piece of music that is used throughout the film aptly titled “Homeless Wanderer” by Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. When I first heard that piece of music I had this clarity about the tone and pace of the movie. I thought ‘this sounds exactly how I want this movie to feel’. I found out afterwards what it was called and a bit of Emahoy’s experience as an exile from Ethiopia and couldn’t believe it. Whenever I drafted the script from then on I played that music in the background. It really shaped the tone of the movie. I was thrilled when I was able to use it in the film. 

In terms of actually shooting the film, I tried to use the camera to keep the ambiguity and complexity alive in all of these characters’ storylines. I tried to find a way to weave between Irene’s subjectivity and something closer to objectivity, so that there are times in the movie where you are on her side, seeing what she is seeing, and there are other times when you are seeing someone in severe denial. Whether it’s refusing to discuss the race problem in front of her children, or denying the depth of the challenge Clare poses in her life, how seductive Clare is, how enthralled she is by her, how possibly even attracted she is to her. On some level the characters are two sides of a coin who have made opposite life choices. They are both attracted and repelled by their differences and this produces a sort of chemistry between them that is the source of tension in the film. 

In filming them I thought about “duality” endlessly. About how to be both things at the same time: gay/ straight, man/woman, black/white. I tried to include both women in the frame as much as possible, and save the clean singles only for the moments of distance and objectivity. I thought about ways in which Clare could overtake Irene’s shot like she is overtaking her life. I also often approached their scenes as romantically as I could. Stolen looks, sideways glances, longing, longing, longing. I thought about all the cinematic ways in which I could hint at some sort of repressed love story. I wanted to take what Larsen does in the novella with the metaphor of passing and echo it, stack as many possible meanings on top of each other as I could. It’s not an easy story to pin down and I wanted to try and reflect that cinematically. Things are shot through mirrors a lot. Sometimes the shot gets hazy, sometimes you don’t really know where you are. We spend a lot of time looking at Irene’s face in a mirror and simultaneously being with her as she thinks “Who am I?” and also wondering about the difference between what she sees and what we see. Edu Grau, the cinematographer, and I literally picked a lens to use for a lot of the movie that is soft on the bottom and the top of the frame to encourage this. Also these ideas were in my head when I decided on the aspect ratio. Not only is 4:3 the old Hollywood standard, it’s also the best for close-ups. It focuses on the face, it says loud and clear this is a movie about faces, how we see them, how we watch them being seen, and what that means about their internal lives and sense of self.

What were some challenges you encountered while working on the film? How did these challenges ultimately add to the final product?

Financing the film was hard. It didn’t help that I was insistent on black and white. If I wasn’t a first time filmmaker maybe that would’ve been alright, but it made people nervous. Thankfully I had dogged producers who believed in my vision and eventually when I had Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga and Alexander Skarsgård things came together. That aside, it has to be said that doing an independent, 1920s period film is not for the faint of heart. We had incredible designers, with Marci Rodgers designing the costumes and Nora Mendis as our production designer, and they worked their magic. Dave Tescon, our VFX supervisor, saved us so many times I can’t even count them. Post-production was finished mostly remotely while self isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything went much more slowly, which may have helped the film in some ways that I can’t see yet. I’m probably lucky that this is my first film, because I have nothing else that I can compare with this experience. If I ever direct anything again, I’ll probably be shocked to actually be in a room with anyone during post. You start to go a little crazy because you never really know if anyone is seeing exactly the same thing you’re seeing.

From motherhood to friendship to identity, the film explores a number of social themes as they relate to Clare and Irene’s individual experiences. How did you apply these themes in your work to help realize these two characters?

They’re all there! I didn’t have to apply anything. It’s all there in the book, I just had to tell the story. One of the radical things about the book is that the drama doesn’t come from white oppression directly acting on a black community. Often stories with race and racism at their core use episodes of white violence or cruelty as dramatic set pieces. Because this story operates at a much more intimate, psychological level, the devastating effect of living in a racist society is revealed slowly and painfully through interpersonal interaction and the way relationships are distorted or destabilized. Larsen also brilliantly uses racial passing as a metaphor for the way that anyone’s inner reality might not match up to the way they try to be seen, which opens up the experience of these characters to anyone, or at least anyone who is honest with themselves. To highlight this idea I worked hard to make sure that all of the principal characters in the movie are passing in some way. Bill Camp’s character Hugh, for example, is a semi-closeted gay intellectual who Larsen modeled after Carl Van Vechten, who notoriously went to Harlem to have dalliances with young men while supporting many writers, including Larsen herself. Given his pet name for her, one could even say that Clare’s husband John is passing himself, pretending that his racism isn’t intrinsically bound up in fetishization and his deep love of a Black woman.

Having worked with some of the most acclaimed directors in the industry in the past as an actress, what made you decide to take the leap from acting to directing? Did you consult with any previous collaborators or ask for advice?

I’ve always wanted to direct films. I love cinema. In some ways I feel I was raised by the movies I watched as a kid. And I also have a need to work to the absolute limit of my capacity. Making this film is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took everything I had and I loved that. It has always been a thought in my head that directing films was the medium that would incorporate all my interests. I paint, am definitely a visual thinker, I play instruments and have long obsessed about how soundscape tells stories. I write, but I could never make any of these things individually my career. Filmmaking is the way in which all these interests get utilized. I wouldn’t have made this film without Angela Robinson, who directed me in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. She read the script, she understood why I wanted to make it, and she encouraged me at every step along the way. She also gave me my own private crash course film school, which was indispensable. She was the person I called if I wasn’t sure whether to fight for something or find a compromise. She’s the person I called when I was panicking in the middle of the night. She is an incredibly generous, brilliant director and producer, and a great friend. I’m also incredibly grateful to Oren Moverman, who directed The Dinner. He was an early champion of this script, and of my vision for the film, and a profoundly supportive creative partner throughout this process. When we were shooting The Dinner I remember him saying to me on set one day “You want to make films don’t you?” and I was shocked as I’d said nothing of the sort. He finally got me to confess that I had a script in a drawer and I let him read it. He called me after and said “You have to make this movie.” I’m also lucky enough to be friends with a few other film directors, particularly Antonio Campos and Mark Romanek who helmed Christine and Tales from the Loop, respectively. They let me blow off steam and gave me tips throughout. I think being an actor for over ten years gives you a lot of free access to the process and the different ways people make movies. I believe It gives you a freedom to understand that there’s not really a right way or a rule book, there’s only your way. If you are lucky enough to get to do it.

Do you think David Bowie is somewhere looking down with pride?

I do [Laughs]. He always felt like some weird guardian angel. It was such a strange thing. But, if he hadn’t sent me the autobiography of Nella Larsen the day after I’d run into him… It was actually quite encouraging. He sent me that book to say, “keep going, keep going.” 

Plus, you got to hang out with David Bowie. 

It was a good moment in my life, really.

Do you feel that making the film and talking with your family in the process of doing it, brought you closer to an understanding of that element of your heritage?

Absolutely. My mother has seen the film now and she was very moved by it. And one of her sisters got in touch with me and said she hadn’t seen the film, but she had read some of the press and she said, “I think you’ve released something for us by just saying this. I’ve struggled with it my whole life. And I never knew what I was meant to think about any of it.” And she just said thank you. We’ll be unraveling it for a long time.

What do you want the viewer to take away from this film?

I think the film is going to affect everybody differently. Your set of experiences are going to work with a kind of alchemy with the movie and your personal experience in the world, whatever you are, is going to affect how you see the film. And it’s going to be different to the person you’re sitting next to, and that creates a dialogue, which I think is exciting and what I’m in this for. I hope viewers have an experience watching it that matters to them in some way. If it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people then I’ve done my job as a filmmaker. 

Passing comes to Netflix on November 10th, 2021 at 8:00 AM GMT

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