Watch | 30. Nov 2021

Nothing Is Just Black Or White

Rebecca Hall had what she describes as a "real gasp" moment when she first read Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing.

The book centers on two light-skinned African American women who run into each other after not having seen each other for many years. One of the women is an active member of Harlem's Black community. The other is married to a white man and is passing as white.

Reading the story of these fictional women, Hall realized that her maternal grandfather had also passed as white.

"Suddenly, aspects of my family life that were tinged with so much mystery and obfuscation, there was a reason for that," Hall says.

Hall's mother, acclaimed opera singer Maria Ewing, also passed as white, though not necessarily by her own volition. Instead, Hall says, Ewing tended to "be whatever people chose to see" — which sometimes meant being described as "exotic" by members of the opera community.

Hall was so moved by Larsen's novel that she drafted a script for a film adaptation — and then she put it away until she felt ready to do something with it. Now, 13 years later, her adapting of Passing is available on Netflix.

And I have to say: There is this phenomena I never knew anything about. And that is how black women successfully neglected their roots to live in the white man´s world. The movie "Passing" based on the novel of the same name takes place in the "Raoring Twenties" a hundred years ago - the ongoing topics from a global pandamic to the #blacklivesmatter movement add an actuality you might not have expected.

The story of two highschool friends who run into each other on a forbidden planet - the white people´s world of shops and restaurants in New York Citiy; while one of them just stepped into that world for one day (to buy her son a special birthday present) the other one lives in it for a while - and plans to stay there forever with her white, racist husband.

In magical black and white (!), the movie captures the two women and thier life choices. One of them, Irene, in an established lifestyle with a doctor and two sons within her black community, the other one, Claire, living the privileged lifestyle of a privileged white community that does not know her indentity; obviously something that happened more often than we would imagine.

The New york Times wrties: "She bathes the movie in tenderness, but she remains faithful to the story’s brutal lack of sentimentality, which can make you gasp. Together with actresses Thompson and Negga, Hall hauntingly brings to life characters forced to exist in that “not entirely friendly” space, with its cruelties, appearances, ambiguities and hard, merciless truths."

As I am just reading the book "Stay Away From Gretchen", a novel by Susanne Abel that kind of deals with a German version of mixed races and confused identities, I feel that I finally get it under my skin: The moment in life when you find out who you really are.

And then deal with it.