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Why Rebecca Hall Was Actually The 'Perfect' Choice To Direct Tessa Thompson's Netflix Movie About Racial Passing In 1920s New York

Rebecca Hall in Iron Man 3

Netflix just acquired the rights to Rebecca Hall’s Passing, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film centers around racial passing and is based on a 1929 novel by Nella Larson. When it comes to directing such a sensitive film, the producers of Passing were initially hesitant to hand the reins over to Rebecca Hall. However, those attached quickly found themselves surprised at just how perfect of a choice the English actress-turned-director was for the upcoming Tessa Thompson movie.

In a recent interview Nina Yang Bongiovi, a producer for Passing, shared the surprising story that ultimately led to Rebecca Hall making her directorial debut:

I was very frank with her. I said, ‘I think it’s gonna be an issue, because we really champion filmmakers of color. And I’m very nervous about you taking on this role, especially about colorism and everything else that comes with passing. That’s when she revealed to me her maternal side of the family. Her mother is actually African American, and her grandfather was passing back in the day because of light skin.

In a panel interview with Indiewire, the producer shared exactly what won her over for the director. After revealing that Rebecca Hall had racial passing occur in her own family, in addition to her own background and diligent preparation, the producer ultimately decided she was the best candidate for the job:

While she was having that conversation, I pretty much got goosebumps and I was stunned, because there’s no one more perfect to tell the story of passing. And then furthermore, she showed me her notebook of her storyboards. She storyboarded the entire movie by hand — super impressive — I was really blown away by her talent, her grace, her thoughtfulness, her approach on how to do this movie, and how to do it right.

Rebecca Hall went on to address the passing that occurred in her own family and how it impacted her decision to get involved in the film. In her words:

I come from a family where there was a history of African-American white passing, [with] my grandfather and most likely his parents also… Not only did the book strike a chord with me, I was very moved and had a deep understanding of these women. I also had a context for the first time in my life for this aspect of my family history. I could put a name onto it because the stuff that I did know added up with a lot of historical aspects of this particular thing going on. For all of these reasons, I was very moved by it.

Passing follows the story of two mix-race women in 1920s New York who reunite, only to have their worlds collide as one passes for white, while the other identifies as African-American. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga will star in the lead roles as best friends Irene and Clare.

Rebecca Hall’s Passing is the only purchase Netflix has made from this year’s Sundance line-up, as the platform were outbid by Apple for the break-out hit Coda. While the streaming giant has sat out in the past, it spent some serious money last year on a number of films and documentaries, including Horse Girl, His House and the controversial Cuties.

While Rebecca Hall is no doubt a wonderful choice to direct Passing, fans will have to wait to see it as the film doesn’t have a release date, but it’s a safe bet that it will roll out on Netflix sometime this year. As for the rest of this year’s upcoming movie slate, be sure to check out CinemaBlend’s 2021 Release Schedule for the last on the everything heading to the big (and small) screens near you.

Braden Roberts

Into tracksuits by Paulie Walnuts, the Criterion Channel and Robert Eggers.