With ‘Passing,’ Rebecca Hall Honors Her Family’s Complicated History

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I knew when I read the novel, in some distant way, that my grandfather must have passed for white, but it seemed like the ending of a story, rather than the beginning of one. In retrospect, I think I accepted that any African-American lineage in my family ended with him, that beyond his strategic performance lay only the mask he had chosen to wear. But as I considered my mother’s life—growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy in which her father’s darker-skinned siblings could visit only after sundown, witnessing the racist humiliation of her father and her family upon the neighbors’ discovery of his “true” identity—it became clear to me that his decision, for which I have nothing but empathy, had resonances that went beyond his own life. Many family dynamics that I had always seen as more or less psychological in origin began to appear much more socially and economically determined.

What is the emotional legacy of a life lived in hiding? It is a question I hope anyone who watches my film will consider. One of the obvious consequences of my grandfather’s choice is that my mother also passed, though unlike her father she did so without much volition. Instead of inheriting his history (which, as it happens, is a truly extraordinary story of genius and resilience that goes back to the American Revolution, in which my many-times-great grandfather Bazabeel served as one of only a few thousand Black soldiers on the American side), she inherited his denial of that history, and she honored her father as any child would. She also passed that denial on to me.

When all is said and done, who am I? What am I? To quote Brian, Irene’s Black husband in Passing, “If I knew that, I’d know what race is.” I am a Hall, of course, an heir to that tradition and that name. But I am equally a Ewing, the surname of my mother, her father Norman, his father, John William, and John William’s father, the white farmer who owned his enslaved mother. And what about race? To the best of my knowledge, race is a fiction created by structures of exploitation that required it, and perpetuated by a system that still does. But that is an abstract answer to a very personal question. Maybe the truest answer is that I am, in some permanent way, passing. Maybe I always will be. I cannot choose how I present, but I can choose to honor my family’s history, and I hope that, with this film, I have begun to do so.

Passing is in select theaters now, and available on Netflix November 10.

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