Actress / director Rebecca Hall had what she describes as a “real moment” when she first read Nella Larsen’s novel in 1929. Who passed.
The book centers on two fair-skinned African American women who meet after not seeing each other for many years. One of the women is an active member of Harlem’s black community. The other is married to a white man and passes for white.
Reading the stories of these fictional women, Hall realized that his maternal grandfather had also passed for white.
“Suddenly, aspects of my family life that were tinged with so much mystery and obscurity, there was a reason for it,” Hall said.
Hall’s mother, famous opera singer Maria Ewing, has also passed off as white, though not necessarily on her own accord. Instead, Hall says, Ewing tended to “be what people chose to see” – which sometimes meant being described as “exotic” by members of the opera community.
Hall was so moved by Larsen’s novel that she wrote a script for a film adaptation – then put it away until she felt ready to do something with it. Today, 13 years later, his adaptation of Who passed is available on Netflix.
For Hall, make the movie – and research his own past on the PBS show Finding your roots – lifted the burden that her mother had carried all her life.
“My mom has a kind of freedom about it now that she didn’t have,” Hall says. “She said to me just recently, ‘What you gave me is kind of a release. You released us all and you released my father. What he never got to talk about, you did. for him. And he would be so proud. “
On keeping a family secret about heritage
It is a huge burden. And then I think when this child has a child, me, then what happens? I guess you get curious and start to open everything up, apparently.
These are all things that I’m still grappling with and I think the process of making this movie, and living in this space, and thinking about it a lot over the last 13 years of my life has made me see how many things, many family dynamics, have a dimension that could be affected.
On her understanding of her mother’s racial identity
To me, she always looked black. Having certainly grown up in the English countryside and attending very white private schools, I was aware of his difference. But it was a thorny subject, not because she didn’t want to give me answers. She could not. She didn’t really have access to the information either. So I would ask him, I would say, “What are we?” What is our heritage? Tell me about your father? And she said, “I don’t really know. It could be that he’s a little black or a little Native American. I don’t really know.” …
Rich Fury / Getty Images for LACMA
She describes times when she was a very small child, there were people who were probably parents who came to visit her and who came to the back of the house. It was in Detroit, Michigan, by the way, in the 1950s, and they’d come to the back of the house with the curtains closed. And she never really explained why or what that meant or what the relationship was. And certainly she told me the story of being called an extreme racial insult when she was 15 really stuck with me, because I thought, what an amazing thing for psychology to go through this abuse, but have no context to define yourself in relation to this. I like to discover it almost through it.
Learning the story of his great-grandfather, John Williams, through the PBS show Finding your roots
I know that John Williams was born a slave in Virginia, that he managed to get to Washington after the abolition. He got a job in the government. He ended up being a high profile activist. He ended up raising a toast to Frederick Douglass at a White House event for the elevation of the race. My mom didn’t know any of this, and it’s incredibly moving to know these names, to know this story, to know how resilient our family has and how amazing our stories are, to be proud of.
On working with Woody Allen (Vicky Christina Barcelona, A Rainy day in New York) and his reaction to that of Dylan Farrow public letter accuse Allen of sexual abuse
I felt like I was in a very strange position, because the day the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, I was shooting exteriors for this movie, and I was shooting a scene where I was yelling at Jude Law’s character about his predilection for find attractive 15-year-old girls. Even though that wasn’t the point of the plot, it’s the women who look 15 years old. But I was surrounded by paparazzi who could hear me say these lines and photograph me, and then people would come up to me, because I was promoting a movie at the same time. … But everyone was asking me where I stood on Woody Allen and why I said these things on the street. I was also pregnant. So i was [pregnant] with a girl and I found myself so moved by what Dylan [Farrow] had written in the Vanity Show article, and I thought it was important to try and amplify those voices at that time. I think in retrospect I have a lot of confused feelings about it because I don’t think the actors should be held responsible for it, and this particular story is so complicated.
The actors who work with these characters are in a very public place. It almost becomes that we become the judge and the jury of these events because we are publicly visible. And so we are asked to have an opinion and then that opinion becomes important. And I don’t think that’s fair. We are neither judge nor jury.
On how learning about her grandfather’s racial identity changed the way she identifies
I tend to tick all the boxes that apply, and I’m very grateful that you can tick all the boxes that apply now. I remember there was a time when you could only tick one box, and I was kind of like “Wait a minute!” I came on a trip and found myself in a different place than where I started out for sure. Of course I am a room [her father, Peter Hall, ran the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre], and everything that comes with that and the theatrical lineage and the heritage and the British heritage, but I’m also an Ewing. And that’s my mother’s name, and her father’s name Norman, and her father, John Williams’ name, and her father’s name, who was the farmer that owned his mother. And I can’t ignore it. I can’t deny it. And I can’t forget it.
Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.