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Rebecca Hall’s Brief But Spectacular take on ‘Passing’ and racial identity

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Rebecca Hall has been on screen and acting since age 10.

But in her new film, "Passing," she steps into the director role for the first time.

Tonight, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas, she shares her Brief But Spectacular take on "Passing" and on her own racial identity.

Rebecca Hall, Actor/Director: I grew up with an American mother. And while I was growing up, there was a lot of mystery surrounding her heritage.

Her father was, I suppose the cleanest way of putting it, was racially ambiguous. I always looked at my mother, and I always felt that I was looking at a woman who was African American. When I would ask her about this, she would not have a clear way of answering me.

Somewhere along this journey of asking questions, somebody gave me a book called "Passing," and it was the first time that I had heard that word, that it was something that Black people did during Jim Crow in America, that they passed for many things, passed white, passed indigenous.

After reading the book, it was clear to me that the mystery and the enigmas within my own family were because my grandfather had spent his life passing white.

"Passing" is a novel that was written in 1929 by Nella Larsen at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Before I read the novel, I didn't have language or context for what my grandfather did.

After reading the novel, I had, I think for the first time, a true understanding of that historical context. The erasing of history, the erasing of the stories of your family that get passed on for generation to generation is -- it's a hard decision to decide to erase that, and not tell your children those stories.

And reading the book gave me a greater understanding of how hard that choice must've been for him. It also gave me a framework for thinking about my own racial identity.

"Passing" is my directorial debut and also my debut as a screenwriter. Everything in this film is passing for something, and that includes the film itself. It has its own performance. It has its own dialogue of cinema. I think that my engagement with this book, to bring it into the culture, is, in a way, my way of honoring my ancestors.

It is not lost on me that the systems of white supremacy that forced, encouraged my grandfather to pass as white are also the systems that I now benefit from as a white-presenting person. There are privileges that come with looking how I look.

I cannot choose how I present, but I can choose to honor that history.

I'm Rebecca Hall, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on "Passing."

Judy Woodruff: And you can watch all of our Brief But Spectacular videos online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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