Director Rebecca Hall has revealed how her family’s own complex biracial history inspired her directorial debut, Passing, about two light-skinned Black women who ‘pass’ as white.
Hall, 39, is the daughter of white British director Sir Peter Hall and Detroit-born opera singer Maria Ewing, 71, whose mother was white Dutch and father was of African American, and possibly Sioux Native American and white European descent.
Like the characters in Passing, Hall’s maternal grandfather Norman Isaac Ewing spent his life ‘passing’ as a white man and raised his children, including Maria, as white.
‘He was almost definitely African American. I say he passed for white; there was no language for that within even my family… it was it was mysterious even for [my mother] and complicated for her,’ Hall said in an interview with Screen Daily.
Rebecca Hall has revealed how her family’s own biracial history inspired her directorial debut, Passing, about two light-skinned Black women who ‘pass’ as white. Pictured, Rebecca in 2010 with her mother, opera singer Maria Ewing, whose mother was white Dutch and father was of African American, and possibly Sioux Native American and white European descent
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing as Clare and Irene, two light-skin Black women who both ‘pass’ – intentionally and unintentionally – as white in 1920s New York
‘I then dug a little deeper, and it became very clear that he was white passing. And more than that, it was likely that his parents were also both white passing. And I started thinking more and more about the legacy of passing in a family.’
Martha J. Cutter, an associate professor of English at Kent State University, argues racial passing originated in advertisements offering rewards for captured runaway slaves in the US in the mid-18th century.
It was uncommon for those who ran away from slavery to be described as being able ‘to pass’ or to ‘pass for’ white, almost white or Native American.
Passing was threatening because it could ‘challenge’ the rationale for slavery: that Black people were ‘inferior’ to white. An individual’s ability to ‘appear’ white while ‘being’ Black destabilised this racist argument.
The theme was explored in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, Passing, on which Hall’s film is based.
It centres on the friendship of Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), two light-skin Black women who both ‘pass’ – intentionally and unintentionally – as white in 1920s New York.
Rebecca described her grandfather’s ‘passing’ as something that was ‘known and not known’. Adapting Passing for the screen was a way of processing her own complicated family history. Pictured, Rebecca as a baby with her mother Maria and father, director Sir Peter Hall
Like the characters in Passing, Hall’s maternal grandfather Norman Isaac Ewing spent his life ‘passing’ as a white man and raised his children as white. Pictured, Maria with Rebecca
The pair reconnect in a chance encounter at a whites-only hotel during the Harlem Renaissance. It is Irene’s first attempt at passing, while Clare has done it for her entire life, even marrying a white racist who is unaware of his own wife’s heritage.
Hall explained she was recommended Passing by a friend about 10 years ago, when she was considering her own racial identity, and the privileges she was afforded as a white-presenting person.
‘I began to think about how racial passing is representative of the American dream, in the sense that you can be self-made and turn yourself into something else, but also representative of the lie at the center of the American dream, which is that you only get to [participate] if your complexion is a certain color,’ she told the LA Times.
‘And as I started thinking more about that, I started wanting to know more and see how I sit in relation to that.’
Norman Isaac Ewing was born c. 1892-1894 to John William Ewing and Hattie Norman, who are both reportedly described in U.S. Census records as ‘mulatto’, an outdated term used to describe a child born to a Black person and a white person.
On the 1910 U.S. Census, Norman’s race is listed as ‘mulatto’. In 1920 he describes himself as ‘Native American Indian’.
Norman married Hermina Maria Veraar, who was born in Amsterdam, in 1938 in Ontario, Canada. The couple settled in the US and welcomed four daughters, Norma Koleta, Carol Pankratz, Frances Ewing and Maria Ewing.
Maria, pictured, met Sir Peter at Glyndebourne in the late 1970s. He directed her as Carmen and as Salome, whose Dance Of The Seven Veils left her totally naked on stage
Norman died in 1968, when Maria was a teenager, and Hermina died in 2004, aged 88.
Maria graduated from Finney High School, Detroit, in 1968 and made her professional debut just eight years later in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
She met Sir Peter at Glyndebourne in 1979. He directed her as Carmen and as Salome, whose Dance Of The Seven Veils left her totally naked on stage, and fell ‘madly in love’, despite being married to his second wife Jacky at the time.
Jacky and he were divorced in 1981, and in 1982 he married Maria, who that same year gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca.
Hall was to write of his third marriage: ‘We were together for ten years of passion, highs and lows, excitement and despair. It was a turbulent life, gloriously happy and acutely miserable.’
But by 1988, he had fallen in love yet again with the theatre’s press officer, Nicki Frei. She became his fourth and final wife when he was 60 and she 30.
Rebecca with her father Sir Peter Hall in 2006. Sir Peter, who married four times, died in 2017
Rebecca first starting her family’s heritage when she was in her mid-20s.
‘I went through a stage of really bringing it into a room and being surprised by the reaction that I got and also confused by the reaction, which varied,’ she told Screen Daily.
‘Some people would be accepting, and a lot of people just would laugh and find it hilarious. And I’d always be like, “What does that say about you that you find that so funny? What’s funny about it? Because I look like an English rose and that’s funny to you because you have an absolute idea about what blackness is?”
‘All these things start to percolate and you’re like this walking paradox.’
In a separate interview, Rebecca described her grandfather’s ‘passing’ as something that was ‘known and not known’. Adapting Passing for the screen was a way of processing her own complicated family history.
‘I don’t think that I really had language for passing. It was such a difficult area of conversation in my family,’ explained Rebecca in an interview with Variety.
Rebecca with her mother Maria Ewing and Leslie Caron, Sir Peter’s first wife, at his funeral
‘It was a question of, maybe my grandfather and maybe his parents [were Black], maybe this, maybe that, maybe it was something else, we don’t really know. It wasn’t framed as this choice.
‘I don’t think I understood the truth of [passing] until I read the book. And then I had a context for it that made sense and slotted everything together in relation to all of the snippets of information I had about my family.’
It was a long journey to get the film made, with producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, of Significant Productions, initially sceptical about Hall’s suitability to tell the story.
‘I was a little hesitant because what we do as a production company is champion filmmakers of colour,’ Bongiovi told Variety. ‘Our mission is to lift up underrepresented voices.
‘So I told her, “I don’t know if it’s right for a Caucasian woman to tell a story about Black women who can pass.
‘And when she told me that her [maternal side of the family] is African American but have been passing for generations, I almost fell off my chair. I was like, Wow, this actually makes her such a perfect filmmaker to tell the story.’
Hall said her mother was ‘incredibly moved’ when she saw the film for the first time.
‘There were a lot of tears,’ she said. ‘She said that she felt her father would have been released by it on some level because he was never able to talk about it. This has given our family an ability to not feel like there’s something that’s hidden.’
Passing is screening in a limited number of cinemas in the UK and US.