On the new Netflix film Passing, Rebecca Hall ventured behind the camera for the first time as the film’s writer and director. Based on the novel by Nella Larsen, the movie follows two black women (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) who can pass as white and choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York.
Although this is Hall’s first time directing, it’s something she’s wanted to do for a long time. “It has always been a thought in my head that directing films was the medium that would incorporate all my interests,” she says about her love for painting, writing and music. “I could never make any of these things individually my career. Filmmaking is the way in which all these interests get utilized.”
Ahead of the film’s Nov. 10 Netflix debut, Hall talked about her personal connection to Passing, making the film in black and white, and David Bowie’s surprising involvement.
When were you first acquainted with Nella Larsen’s novel? 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, lived in a white neighborhood and raised his children as white. 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. 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, furthermore it is quite possible that both his parents were also white passing.
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 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 doesn’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. In the end, I decided that I needed to make this film both because of where I come from as a filmmaker, 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?
The first part of it was fairly haphazard. I read the book, I put it down, and wrote the script. In about 10 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. 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. After that, I researched and read a lot and then did another draft with all of that knowledge incorporated.
Why did you decide to shoot the film in black and white?
Part of the concept of this film was to turn it into the great, female-driven 1930’s 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 complicate. I also always instinctively thought that the best way to make a movie about colorism was to take all the color out of it.
What do you want the viewer to take away from this film?
I hope they 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 is available to stream Nov. 10 on Netflix.