Visiting Director Rebecca Hall: “My grandfather was African American and he went white for most of his life” | Ents & Arts News


Rebecca Hall was in her mid-twenties when she began to understand her complicated family history. The British actress-turned-director says most would look at her fair complexion and dark hair and see “the English rose,” she says – but appearances are never the end of a person’s story.

Hall, who has appeared in films such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, ​​Frost / Nixon and Holmes & Watson, is the daughter of famous British film and theater director Peter Hall and American opera singer Maria Ewing.

Her maternal grandfather, she learned, was a fair-skinned black man who “passed” as white for most of his life.

Tessa Thompson (left) and Ruth Negga star in Rebecca Hall’s Passing. Photo: Netflix

About 13 years ago, when Hall took over Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, she began to consider her own Métis heritage and why it had never really been talked about in her family.

Located in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Larsen’s exploration of race and the practice of “passage,” which was not uncommon for fair-skinned blacks wanting to escape racial segregation and discrimination in this era struck a chord.

(LR): Ruth Negga, Rebecca Hall and Tessa Thompson attend a special screening of Passing at the 59th New York Film Festival on October 3, 2021. Photo: Andy Kropa / Invision / AP
Hall pictured with Negga (left) and Tessa Thompson (right) at a screening for the film in New York City earlier this year, and below with her mother, Maria Ewing, in 2010. Photos: Andy Kropa / Invision / AP and Alex Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock
Rebecca Hall and her mother Maria Ewing pictured in 2010. Photo: Alex Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

Uncovering his own story led Hall to adapt the novel to the big screen; the story follows two black women, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Oscar nominee Ruth Negga), who both could “pass” as white but choose to live on the other side of the line. color.

“I think so many people don’t know this happened because it’s a historic event that was necessarily hidden,” Hall told Sky News.

“So a lot of families, it’s hidden even within those families, including mine. My grandfather was African American and he went white for most of his life. And that’s a fact. which I didn’t really learn the details of until about last year. “

Before reading Larsen’s novel, Hall says she had no context or even a way to describe how her grandfather had lived his life and why. “So it gave me a tremendous amount of context, understanding, compassion and empathy for the choice.”

Passing tells the story of former childhood friends, Clare and Irene, who reunite one summer and Irene finds out that Clare has turned white; she is even married to an overt racist (played by Alexander Skarsgård).

The film uses the notion of passage to explore not only racial identity, but also gender and the responsibilities of motherhood, sexuality and the performance of womanhood.

Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare with director Rebecca Hall on the set of Passing.  Photo: Emily V Aragones / Netflix
Hall on set with Thompson and Negga, and below with Andre Holland, who plays Irene’s husband, Brian. Photos: Emily V Aragones / Netflix
Andre Holland (Brian) on the set of Passing with director Rebecca Hall.  Photo: Emily V Aragones / Netflix

This is not to criticize those who have chosen to pass, Hall says, but to criticize “a society which in any way judges a person’s construction on its own … there has the things we think we believe, the person we think we should believe. to be, that society wants us to be. And there’s the thing that we really want to be, that we want to be. And sometimes it can be a huge area of ​​conflict, and that sometimes means we hide our real selves.

Passing is Hall’s first director and it took many years. “I’ve run into issues both within the industry – I’ve run into blockages trying to do this – but I’ve also encountered personal blockages,” she says.

“[The screenplay] sat in a drawer for quite a long time because I just didn’t trust myself. I felt like it was too ambitious … and I just didn’t think anyone would let me get there. “

Hall was concerned that some in the industry would question his ability to tell this story.

“The pitch meetings were particularly poignant,” she says. “I ended up getting very emotional every time I introduced it to a financier because they would invariably ask me, you know, ‘why the hell are they you do that ?’

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“But I feel like that kind of a walking example of what this movie is. You know, everyone looks at me and has a whole bunch of assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. Or they are. are true but that is not the end of the story.

“Forever everyone looked at me and knew that I am the daughter of Peter Hall and part of a British theatrical lineage, and [I’m thought of as] ‘English rose’, and that’s sort of the end of the story. And the fact that there is in my own story … so many other contradictory and elusive things somehow shows the absurdity of it all. “

Hall shot the film in black and white, something she didn’t want to move on. “In a very sonorous way, I felt like the best way to make a colorism film was to get all the color out of it,” she says.

“But I mean more specifically what I mean by that, I think sometimes to understand truths about humanity we need poetry. We don’t necessarily need complete reality, sometimes abstraction helps.

Ruth Negga as Clare and Tessa Thompson as Irene in Passing.  Photo: Netflix
Negga as Clare and Thompson as Irene in Passing. Photo: Netflix
Ruth Negga as Clare and Alexander Skarsgard as John in Passing.  Photo: Netflix
Alexander Skarsgard plays Clare’s racist husband John. Photo: Netflix

“I think black and white takes those concepts and highlights the fact that we’re so busy putting everyone in these categories, when no one can be reduced to one thing. Like, you” – she told me. nods – “can’t be reduced to just ‘woman’ or, you know, ‘white’, or whatever … the great irony of the black and white movie is that it’s not black and white is gray. And it exists in the gray areas, really. “

Making the movie opened up many conversations between Hall and his mother that hadn’t been said before.

“She’s extremely proud and she’s extremely emotional about it,” Hall said. “She said she felt like it gave her and her father who is no longer with us some kind of release, like an ability to talk about something that, until now , seemed like it could not be approached. “

She adds: “I hope, in the broadest sense, the thing that people take [from the film] it is to think about what is the legacy of a life lived in clandestinity. And that doesn’t just mean racially hiding, it means all the ways we don’t fully present ourselves. And how we can’t because of how much society imposes something – especially black women. “

Passing is now available on Netflix

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