Initially I wondered why acclaimed actor Rebecca Hall ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona"; "Christine"; "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women"; "The Night House") chose Nella Larsen's 1929 book "Passing" to make her debut as a director. The phenomenon of "passing," whereby an African-American person would pass for white, was a long-buried secret in the Black community, so what connection did a white English actress have with it? Further, her father, Peter Hall, founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and served as the director of the National Theater in London. What drew her to this story? As it turns out, she had one of the best reasons.The connection, I learned, resided in the lineage of her mother, American opera star, Maria Ewing.
Rebecca told me that when she was a child, she noticed that her mother didn't look quite like all of the other mothers in the English countryside. "At a certain point when I looked at my mother I thought, 'That's a Black woman,' but no one ever said it." Her mother intimated that her father, who had died when she was young, may have had Native American blood or maybe even Black blood. But they never really talked about it with any resolution.
However, Rebecca's curiosity only grew as she got older. And one day, when someone gave her Nella Larsen's book about passing, a light bulb just went off, and she finally had the language to express her feelings about the ambiguity of her family history. Her desire to be a filmmaker (she had always painted and had a keen interest in music and the arts), and her desire to learn more about her family's history, culminated in the making of the exquisite film "Passing," starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga (read Odie Henderson's review here). It also led her to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to help untangle the intricacies of her background. I had a conversation with Rebecca about this at the Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival last summer. You can view it below.
The fascinating PBS series, "Finding Your Roots," serves as an extraordinary way of illuminating the buried histories of our ancestors and how their stories are reflected in our own identities. In the season eight premiere that aired on January 4th, 2022, Professor Gates welcomed Rebecca Hall as a guest. And her session on the show resulted in many breathtaking surprises. On this episode, which can be viewed in full here through February 1st, 2022, Gates also traces the family history of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels.
Professor Gates begins by debunking the alleged Native American heritage of her maternal grandfather, Norman Ewing, who was known as a Chief of the Dakota tribe who fought in Custer's Last Stand. The willful inconsistency of his race and birthplace may have been fueled by the fact that his first wife was indigenous. Hall became visibly emotional when Dr. Gates confirmed that Norman was, in fact, part "mulatto," and had fabricated his Native American ancestry to avoid becoming the target of anti-Black racism.
I have to issue a Spoiler Alert here, because some of the astonishing revelations about Rebecca Hall's Black ancestry are truly amazing. What's ironic about her Grandfather Norman Ewing making the decision to pass for Native American, is that Norman's father, John Ewing, was one of the most prominent African-Americans in Washington! He secured a position in the U.S. Treasury Department; befriended Frederick Douglass, for whom he offered a toast at the White House with President Grant during a ceremony; and always looked "to the elevation of the race along moral and educational lines," according to his obituary. John Ewing's wife, Harriet, descended from a long line of free Black people. Hall's fourth great grandfather, Bazabeel "Basil" Norman fought in the American Revolution, making him one of the 5,000 people of color, as estimated by scholars, who fought for our nation's independence! You must watch the whole episode to get the full flavor.
Ms. Hall is comfortable with her decision to do this publicly. She says that by appearance since she presents as white and English, most people assume they know who she is. And her Grandfather's decision to pass for white and/or Native American, for whatever reason he had to make it, kept hidden her rich Black history for several generations. She feels newly empowered with this information both in her life as a filmmaker, and in her daily life. But she also feels the sadness of the obstacles her Grandfather faced that caused him to make such a big decision. Fortunately, that secret stops here.
Editor's note: Chaz Ebert is an executive producer of "Passing."