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Hollywood has a long history of “passing movies”—films in which Black characters pass for white—usually starring white actors. Even as these films have attempted to depict the devastating effect of racism in America, they have trafficked in tired tropes about Blackness. But a new movie from the actor-writer-director Rebecca Hall takes the problematic conventions of this uniquely American genre and turns them on their head. Hall tells the story of how her movie came to life, and how making the film helped her grapple with her own family’s secrets around race and identity.

Further reading: Netflix’s Passing Is an Unusually Gentle Movie About a Brutal Subject

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This episode was produced by Tracie Hunte and Peter Bresnan with help from Alina Kulman. Editing by Emily Botein, Julia Longoria, and Jenny Lawton. Special thanks to B.A. Parker. Fact-check by Will Gordon. Sound design by David Herman with additional engineering by Joe Plourde. Transcription by Caleb Codding.

Music by Water Feature (“With Flowers”), H Hunt (“Wrong I” and “Having a Bath”), and Keyboard (“Shingles” and “Contractions”) provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional music by Joe Plourde. Additional audio from Pinky, I Passed for White, Imitation of Life, and Netflix.

A transcript of this episode is presented below:

(Dramatic, tense old Hollywood music plays through gramophone static, then winds down.)

Julia Longoria: Today on The Experiment, we talk about an old type of American movie.

(Woodwinds complicate a light horn melody through yet more static.)

Bernice, in I Passed for White: I wish I could be a real Negro or a real white person. Somebody. I don’t know what to do.

(The music becomes clearer, as if the static washed away, then gradually fades down.)

Tracie Hunte: So back in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, into the 1960s, Hollywood used to make these “passing” movies. And these were movies where a Black character is passing for white.

Longoria: Correspondent Tracie Hunte has been watching a lot of these movies.

Hunte: So a lot of these movies were written and directed by white people. The Black characters tended to be very stereotypical and not have a lot of depth. And very often—like, almost 100 percent of the time—the actor who’s playing the “passing” character is actually a white woman. And I think the most ridiculous example of this is the 1960 movie called I Passed for White.

(The woodwinds reenter.)

Bernice: I made friends with a nice white girl.

Granny: And when she found out you were colored, she wasn’t so nice?

Bernice: (Woefully.) Yes.

Hunte: We meet our main character, and her skin color is just causing problems wherever she goes.

Bernice: I’m not really a Negro. And I’m—I’m not a white. Why can’t I be what I look to be—what people take me for?

Longoria: So, Tracie, why are you subjecting yourself to all these cringey movies?

(The music fades out.)

Hunte: A lot of these movies are ridiculous, but I think that they’re, like, really kind of a fascinating snapshot into how white filmmakers in that time period were trying to grapple with these really big questions about race and identity—and what it’s like to actually be a Black person in America. And they’re doing it in a very clumsy, very cringey way, but, you know, as tired as this trope is, it’s still, like, a very deep, creative well to draw from, and there’s this new movie that has a kind of passing story line, and I think it’s actually trying to do something new and more interesting with it than all these movies from the past did.

(Softly, a loop begins to play—just a handful of notes, breathy over the sound of a vibration, a mist, a distortion.)

Longoria: This week, Experiment correspondent Tracie Hunte dissects some classic films from Hollywood history about a unique American experience: passing. And she sits down with the woman—actor, writer, and director Rebecca Hall—who reaches into her own family’s complicated history to try and retell an old American story in a new way.

I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.

(The loop fades into nothing as Hunte picks up the narration.)

Hunte: One of the most famous of these passing movies is this 1949 Elia Kazan film called Pinky. It tells the story of a young woman who has just returned to her hometown in the South.

(Strings enter through a new wave of static.)

Dicey: Pinky, child?

Pinky: Yes, Granny. It’s—it’s me.

Hunte: And it comes out that when she was up north, she was passing for white. And, you know, she’s just, like, sick of being treated, you know, like how Black people are treated in the South.

Longoria: Hmm.

Rozelia: Jake, what’s she doing with my money?

Jake: Rozelia, you know what I’ve been doing for you! Do you know who that is? Miss Pinky!

Rozelia: I don’t care who she is!

Hunte: So, in this scene, Pinky and two other Black people are having an altercation. And the cops roll up.

Cop: Just what was the trouble, ma’am?

Pinky: I don’t care to make any charges.

Cop: Oh, just a minute if you please, ma’am.

Hunte: And at first the cops are really nice to Pinky because they think she’s white, but there’s a Black woman standing there that Pinky was just in a fight with [Laughs.] and she’s getting really frustrated and then she just kinda tells the cops, like, “Why are you treating her so nice?”

Cop: Shut up, girl!

Rozelia: Oh, excuse me, sir, but why are you two white men ma’aming her? She’s nothing but a low-down colored gal. (The sound of a slap.)

Hunte: And then, like, you see the cop just change on a dime. He immediately arrests them, including Pinky, and takes them in.

(A crescendo of strings—high drama—segues into the toll of sparse electronic bells.)

Hunte: You know, the thing about these passing movies is that they’re really for white people. They’re not really made with Black people in mind. And they’re basically trying to show white people what racism is like and build empathy in white people.  And quite frankly, the way they’re doing this is by taking a white woman—and it’s usually an actress who is very well known as a white woman; like, everybody knows she’s white woman! [Laughs.]—and putting her in the shoes of a Black person.

(Bells trade out for another old-timey Hollywood soundtrack, this one a soprano mix of strings and woodwinds.)

Hunte: But I should say that there is one passing movie that I absolutely love, the 1959 version of Imitation of Life.

Annie: Are you happy here, honey? Are you finding what you really want?  

Hunte: So, in this scene, the mother—Annie, who’s Black—has come to see her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane has run away from home so that she can pass for white.

Sarah Jane: Please, Mama, will you go? And if by accident we should ever pass on the street, please don’t recognize me!

Hunte: But Annie just wants to see Sarah Jane one more time.

Annie: (Emotional.) Sarah Jane. Oh, my baby. My beautiful, beautiful baby. I love you so much. Nothing you ever do can stop that.

Sarah Jane: (Growing emotional, too.) Oh, Mama!

(The strings fade out to make way for the ensuing conversation.)

Hunte: (Ever so lightly.) Okay! So!

Longoria: I mean, I’m crying over here. (Both laugh.)

Hunte: This movie works! (Both laugh again.)

Longoria: So, yeah. What—why do you think this works?

Hunte: I think that this movie does a really good job of showing exactly what happens when somebody passes—it’s showing the true tragedy. The tragedy isn’t necessarily, like, this light-skinned Black person is found out, or the tragedy isn’t that a white person found out that this light-skinned Black person has been lying to them. The tragedy in this is that you see that, in order to pass, Sarah Jane has to, like, completely leave her old life behind. She has to, like, pretend that her mother does not even exist. And [A beat and a breath.] one thing about a lot of passing movies is that they kind of equate Blackness with dehumanization, poverty. [Sighs.] Like, to be a Black person in America is to be always downtrodden.

Longoria: Right. Like, “You would never want to be,” or something. (Laughs gently and seriously.)

Hunte: You would never want to be a Black person, right?

Longoria: Right.

Hunte: But you realize that Blackness is not just all the terrible things that white people do to us—Blackness is also a heritage to be proud of—and that when you turn your back on it, there’s actual real pain and real repercussions. And those repercussions don’t always involve white people.

(Resonant low notes echo in the emptiness for a moment before fading out.)

Hunte: And I just have a lot of affection for this movie, Imitation of Life, even though it has the exact same issues that we were just talking about with Pinky, where, you know, it’s written and directed by white people, the person who is playing the passing character is a white actress, and a lot of the scenes are melodramatic.

As far as I know, a lot of these passing movies had these same problems. And the last major Hollywood movie that had a passing story line that I can think of came out, like, almost 20 years ago.

Longoria: Why do you think that is? Do you have a theory?

Hunte: Well, my theory is that, you know, we’ve come a long way. [Both laugh lightly.] We’ve definitely changed the way we think and talk about race and identity in this country. And obviously there were a lot of societal changes—you know, segregation ended—and also we have more mixed-race people than ever. [Both laugh.]

And they can talk for themselves; they don’t need—if they ever did need somebody—they don’t need a white writer-director to explain their existence to other white people. So there’s kind of no need for the passing movie.

Longoria: Hmm.

Hunte: But, you know, as I say that, there is a new passing movie.

(A piano line plays up and down, back and forth.)

Hunte: And it’s called, simply, Passing.

Clare: So you haven’t ever thought to?

Irene: What?

Clare: You haven’t thought of passing?

Irene: No. Why should I? I have everything I’ve ever wanted.

Hunte: And in a big change from precedent [Both laugh.] this movie is actually going to star Black people. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are playing the leads. And it’s directed by a woman named Rebecca Hall.

Rebecca Hall: My phone. I know what I’m doing. Hold that up! So I’m recording myself. How’s everybody doing over there?

Hunte: So Rebecca Hall has had this long career in movies as an actor. She was in The Prestige, Iron Man 3—movies that really don’t call attention to anyone’s race [Chuckles.] or anything, or talk about race in any way.

And this is important because, like, if you see a picture of Rebecca Hall, you would assume that she’s a white woman, but her mother is actually a mixed-race Black woman.

(Maria Ewing sings “L’Amour Est un Oiseau Rebelle” from Carmen, then fades out.)

Hunte: So Rebecca’s mom is an opera singer named Maria Ewing. And she’s a huge international opera star, actually. [Laughs.] Um, she was born in Detroit. And she is known for roles like Salome and Carmen. And Ewing met Rebecca’s father—the famous white British theater director Peter Hall—when he directed her in a show at an opera festival in England.

Hall: I mean, she went from, you know—it was a working-class background. She wasn’t in a kind of elite educational anything, or anything like that, but she sort of was brilliant at singing, and it just catapulted her into huge success very quickly!

I mean, she won some competitions and then got into, like, the Cleveland Institute of Music when she was very young. Then, you know, became a sort of opera star overnight.

Hunte: Mhm.

Hall: And there were a lot of mysteries around my mother’s racial identity.

There were plenty of opera publications that referred to her—like, some people referred to her as Black, some people referred to her as white, some people referred to her as mixed. I mean, often, she would just be described as “exotic,” which is really troubling.

Hunte: When you looked at your mom when you were a kid, what did you see? Did it—was it something like, She doesn’t look like all the other British mums? (Laughs.)

Hall: No. I saw a Black woman. I’m—I’m sorry, but I did!

Hunte: You did?

Hall: I did!

Hunte: Really?

Hall: I really did.

Hunte: Even that young? Yeah.

Hall: And I—I don’t even know if she, like, [Laughs.] really knows this, but I’m like, I did. She always looked Black to me, and I was like, “I know other people who look like you and are—are identifying wholly as Black.”

Hunte: Did you ever tell her that, like … ?

Hall: Yeah.

Hunte: Yeah.

Hall: Yeah!

Hunte: And what would she say to that? Or … ?

Hall: I find it difficult to talk about this side of it, because I don’t—

Hunte: Yeah, yeah.

Hall: I don’t want to—

Hunte: I understand, yeah.

Hall: —put words in my mother’s mouth and it’s her story, you know? But it’s like, it’s—and it’s super tricky. You know, she grew up in a white neighborhood, playing with the neighbor white woman and their kids, and then, you know, cut to her being 16-years-old and coming home from school with her father and getting out of the car and the neighbors saying a horrible racial epithet, and “Why don’t you die?”

I think if you’re the child of someone who has essentially told you that this thing is not to be spoken of, you’re raised going, um, “I’m—I’m scared to speak of this.” It was incredibly complicated for her, you know? She was just vague, like it was, the story would change and mutate. So there was this narrative of, like, “It’s possible, maybe, a little bit,” or, “It’s a little bit this or a little bit that,” and it was sort of minimized and dismissed on some level, because I think that’s probably an easier way to negotiate it.

I don’t, like, begrudge that, you know? Or I don’t want to criticize that. It’s a sort of response that I think is probably quite natural. I think she just didn’t know what she was meant to feel about it.

Hunte: And Rebecca wasn’t sure how to feel about it either—until she read a book, a novel.

Hall: I read Passing first 13 years ago.

Hunte: So Passing was actually written by Nella Larsen in 1929. And Larsen was a mixed-race Black woman who was part of the Harlem Renaissance. So the novel isn’t new, but Rebecca first encountered it when she was in her 20s.

Hall: It was a moment in my life where I was spending more time in America.

Hunte: Do you remember who gave it to you?

Hall: Yeah. I’ve gotta—I’ve gotta give credit where credit’s due. It was a white guy. Um …

Hunte: (Laughs.) Wait!

Hall: (Also laughing.) Yup!

Hunte: So this white guy—so he hands you the book, does, like … What was his intention? Was it just like, “Here’s a good book!”

Hall: Well, it was at a—like, it was in a moment where I was in a kind of clumsy, muddy way, I was finding myself in rooms of people. And this is often, you know, a—a mixed-race experience, I guess.

Hunte: Mhm.

Hall: Or, you know, a white-passing experience, [Laughs.] where you find yourself in rooms where people are making assumptions about you based on how you look and maybe saying things that they wouldn’t otherwise.

And I didn’t have words; I didn’t have phrases like “passing” or “white-pass—,” you know?

Hunte: Yeah.

Hall: To sort of understand kind of where I sit in it all. My friend gave me the book because of that. [Both laugh.] And was like, “This book might mean something to you.”

Hunte: Oh …

Hall: I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but I remember looking at the title and thinking, “Passing? Like, why would anyone call the book Passing? What does that even mean?” I just didn’t know. I just didn’t have the language for it.

(Piano music plods along, serious but not heavy.)

Hunte: Passing is about two light-skinned Black women: Clare and Irene. They were friends as children and reconnect as adults. Irene is very respectable, living a life in Harlem with her Black husband and two children. Clare, on the other hand, is passing and married to a racist white man.

Hall: I mean, the thing that I find so sort of, like, radical about the book is that it’s not this conventional morality tale, you know? You think initially it’s like, Oh, Irene’s the morally righteous one, and Clare’s the baddie ’cause she’s done this transgressive thing and she will be punished for it. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Hunte: Yeah, you said, you said the book is radical. Why was it radical for you in that way?

(The music fades out.)

Hall: By the time she was writing, there was already a tradition of, like, passing narratives. And they fell pretty squarely into this camp of tragic figure who ultimately gets punished for her choice. And—

Hunte: And it’s always a woman.

Hall: Yeah. It’s always a woman. And it’s usually a woman in relation to white men. And I—I think, like—it’s like—it feels like Nella Larsen takes that and then makes it about two women and their effect on each other. And that, I think, is fairly radical for 1929: to show the emotional lives of two women of color, how they affect each other, how they’re attracted to each other, how they’re repelled.

I mean, I thought on first reading that there was something interesting about the kind of, like, an erotic underpinning of female friendship, like the way that envy or kind of wanting to be someone slips into something else. And it’s not necessarily, like, acted on, but I thought that was very honest in an odd way.

Hunte: And after reading the book, Rebbeca Hall became obsessed.

Hall: There’s a lot about both of the women in the novel that remind me of not just aspects about my mother, but also aspects about myself.

Hunte: It seems like it kind of almost, like, threw on a light switch on some, like—

Hall: Mmm.

Hunte: —dark room in your memory or in your family’s past, in a way. And what was it about it that, like, kind of had that effect?

Hall: You know, it was sort of like the missing piece of a puzzle. It was like someone had just stoked a fire, is what it really felt like.

It just sent me into a sort of place of creative fervor that not many things I have come in contact with sparked. And I finished the book and immediately started writing the screenplay. Like, I couldn’t stop myself.

Hunte: Really?

Hall: Yeah. And I couldn’t turn off the ideas. It has to be in black-and-white, and it has to be square. And I don’t really know what that’s called—something to do with the aspect ratio—I’ll learn that later. [Laughs.] But, you know, I couldn’t—I couldn’t really stop a lot of the images. Like, those were all ideas that came while I was reading it for the first time. And I couldn’t turn that off. It was sort of like something that I had to kind of, um, exorcise from my body by writing it all down. And the first draft came out in 10 days.

(A return of the plodding piano for a breath.)

Hunte: Thirteen years after that first draft, and almost 100 years after the book first came out, the movie Passing is out in the world.

Hunte: One thing that was really funny was when the trailer came out, there was all this , like, conversation on social media about Ruth and Tessa not looking like they could pass. And it was like, everyone was all of a sudden, like, race detectives or race scientists, like … (Laughs.)

Hall: I know! Yeah.

Hunte: You know, not quite taking the calipers out, but almost taking them out, you know.

Hall: Yeah! In many ways, it was sort of good for the point of the movie! [Both laugh.]

It was kind of drawing attention to it. Also, you know, I—I just wanted to toy with the slippery reality of all of these constructs. I mean, the whole book is doing that, really. And, you know, if we try and stuff ourselves all into one container, we invariably slip out the sides of it. I guess it was sparking the sort of conversation that I sort of knew in my bones was coming.

Hunte: Yeah

Hall: And was kind of deliberate, honestly. I mean, the casting was deliberate.

Hunte: Oh, in what way?

Hall: Well, I was interested in casting two women that the audience had a fairly fixed idea of their racial identity as being Black.

Hunte: Mhm.

Hall: Because I had somewhere from which to destabilize that idea in the process of the film. The reason the film is in black-and-white is so I could cast those women. Because, yes, I can play with shade and lighting and lighting states and sort of make their faces mutable on some level. But, you know, you take, for an example, the first scene in the hotel room, where the two women are there and John, the husband, comes in.

Clare: John, dear. [They kiss.] I ran into an old, old friend of mine from school, Irene Westover. Irene, this is my husband, John Bellew.

John: Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Westover.

Hall: You know, that room is deliberately oppressively white in the movie. The walls are white; the costumes are white. There’s a huge amount of light coming in from the side window. And the sort of point of that was he holds all the power in this room, so he turns it white. He has the power to see what he wants to see. And the audience, though, are still seeing them as Black, which is crucial.

Hunte: Yeah.

Hall: Because, from that perspective, you’re thinking, Is everyone not seeing what I’m seeing? I’m scared for them.

Hunte: Mhm.

Hall: I’m scared for them that they might get found out. And you wouldn’t be feeling that with a different face. And that’s the perspective that I wanted the audience to sit in for the movie.

(The faintest wind chimes play, light around and through the quiet wind that animates them.)

Hunte: Coming up, how making the film Passing changed Rebecca Hall—and how retelling a story from the past brought up all kinds of stuff in the present.

Hunte: Were you prepared for people to, like, see you and wonder why this white woman was making this movie?

Hall: Oh yeah!

Hunte: Was that something that you were thinking about? (Laughs.)

Hall: Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. I was, of course, nervous about that.

(The wind chimes fade into the break.)

(Out of the break, old Hollywood strings play up for just a moment before they’re sucked backward in time.)

Hunte: You’re listening to The Experiment. I’m Tracie Hunte.

Rebecca always wanted to find out more about her family’s own passing story. Her mother had been told she was a little bit of this or a little bit of that.

Hall: But the funny thing is, is like, it wasn’t a little bit. [Laughs.] It wasn’t. And now I have found out it all.

Hunte: After wrapping on the movie, Rebecca worked with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his TV show Finding Your Roots. That’s where she learned the true identity of her Black American ancestors for the very first time.

Hall: My great-grandfather John Williams, he was born of a woman called Violet who worked in a house and his father, who was called Ewing, owned them. He was the farmer who owned them. And that’s the name that my mother’s still carrying around.

(Soft puffs of air materialize out of nowhere. Light music trills above and below.)

Hunte: And what she found wasn’t just an American story, but an extraordinary American story. Hall’s great-grandfather, a man named John William Ewing, had been born enslaved, fathered by the white man who owned him and his family. But after emancipation, Ewing went on to work for the government. And he was also an advocate for Black people.

Hall: He ended up giving a toast at the White House to Frederick Douglass, and that’s been erased from my family’s history, and it’s the most extraordinary thing.

Hunte: Rebecca also learned that three days after her great-grandfather took part in this historic celebration of Black freedom at the White House, his stepfather was murdered.

Hall: He was killed by the KKK.

(The music shifts, somber for a long moment, then fades out.)

Hunte: Rebecca’s grandfather—John William Ewing’s son—would later pass for white. It’s impossible to know why he made that choice, but this tragic family story provided a clue.

Hunte: Was that painful to … ? I don’t know. I feel like I would be angry, but that’s my emotion. I don’t—what is yours? (Laughs.)

Hall: When I hear that story, I can only think that my grandfather—If his father’s father was murdered because he spoke out, that’s what my grandfather inherits, is, like, standing up for the race means your family getting murdered. So you just inherit a lot of the fear, you know? So that was the first sort of light switch going on. Like, of course this explains why nobody knew anything and why there was so much secrecy and why there was so much denial and why my mother doesn’t know his family and doesn’t know anything about his family. She couldn’t even name her own grandfather. And that made tremendous sense to me.

So I can’t—It’s hard for me to be anything but compassionate, honestly, even though I’m angry.  

Hunte: Yeah, I—you know, I don’t know much about, like, my family background past, like, my great-grandparents, maybe. But I—I think about those people a lot, and I always think, like, They survived. I think that that’s, like, the most important part to take from their story, at least for me. And when I heard about your grandfather, I’m—that’s what I was coming away with. Like, he survived, and the way he did it wasn’t … [Sighs.] the way … He—he did what he had to do.

Hall: He survived.

Hunte: Yeah.

Hall: Right, right.

Yeah, it’s not lost on me that the system of white supremacy that forced him to make that choice is also one that I benefit from because he made that choice. And because I look white.

Hunte: Yeah.

Is that something that, um—When you hear this story, like, you’re finding out that you have this actual, like, lineage of Black Americanness. Like, that—do you feel like, as a white-presenting person, that you actually own that? Or that you can tap into it, or does it feel like … ? Okay, this is a crass way—but do you feel Blacker? [Both laugh.] Like … Um …

Hall: Yeah, I mean, look. I think it’s just slightly that—I mean … I mean, this is the crux of the question, really, isn’t it?

Hunte: Yeah.

Hall: I don’t know. But what is—what is Blackness? Like, how are we defining it?

Hunte: Right, yeah.

Hall: I don’t—I don’t know what my—my proximity to that is meaningful, because it’s a powerful construct, but I don’t experience—I have not experienced the world in a Black body. And there is a difference.

Hunte: Yeah.

Hall: Obviously there is a difference. And I can’t—I don’t feel a closer proximity to that, because I only have the experience of how I look. But I’m a Ewing, and that name was … In large part, I look like I look because of an initial act of violence, so …

Hunte: Yeah.

Hall: … I can’t let that win. So, yes, I do feel Blacker because of that. [Both laugh.]

Yes. And also because it’s been so hidden and so obscured from me, it feels necessary to be vocal about it and to identify with it.

It makes me feel responsible.

Hunte: Yeah.

Hall: It makes me feel like I want to, um, reach out with compassion to my ancestors and—and—and do something, which is, I guess, why I make art about it.

Hunte: How did making this movie change you?

Hall: (After a beat.) Mmm … [Exhales slowly.] It’s pretty easy to answer the question of, like, how it did not change me. I don’t know. [Both laugh.]

I really don’t. It’s big.

I mean, there’s the obvious stuff. Like, before I made this movie, I wasn’t a writer and a director, and—and now I am. Um, but I think it’s also changed me in terms of how …

I think I was really sort of frightened to even negotiate my standing in relation to my own identity and all of these things, um, certainly as it pertains to race. And now I feel on much firmer ground about it, I think.

Hunte: I think, like, one of the tensions of these kinds of—these passing stories is that they kind of show just how race is fake. It’s just made up. It’s just dumb.

Hall: Precisely. Precisely.

Hunte: It’s not a—it’s not an actual thing. But at the same time, that it’s—It actually is kind of a thing.

Hall: It is kind of a thing. [Hunte laughs.]

Hall: Yeah. Well it’s like, yeah! It isn’t real. It is a construct. It is all a fiction.

That doesn’t mean that the forces that make us grow up, you know … Even someone like me, who’s not facing the world and—and appearing Black, I still have the experience of being raised by someone who was raised by someone, you know?

Hunte: Right!

Hall: And that is—that is real and gets passed on. So how that is constructed—even if it is hidden—still has a powerful effect on your existence.

Hunte: What do you think is, like, the emotional legacy of passing, you know, in your own family? Like, what has it—what has it left behind?

(A siren passes in the background.)

Hall: Ah, it sort of really pains me to say this, but it’s like … [Sighs.] The emotional legacy, honestly, is that you inherit an awful lot of—of sort of internalized shame and none of the pride of being Black. My mother would—you know, people would say things to her about certain features on her face. And it was like, you know, “Shame—shame you inherited that from there and not from your white side.” There’s no messaging in her immediate family, in her community that is “This is beautiful. This is something to be proud of.” It’s a thing to navigate [Exhales one short, sharp laugh.]—to get through all that and just find the beauty and the pride.

That’s really what I wanted to give to my mother, I think. That’s why I dedicated the film to her. (Her voice waivers slightly with emotion) Anyway …

(A moment of quiet. Then a piano line plays, lilting and tender, thoughtful and warm.)

Hunte: I’m sure she’s seen it. What does she think about it?

Hall: She loves it. Like, it’s just—it’s really simple. [Both laugh.]

It’s really simple. She loves it. Um, no, the first time she saw it, she just called me; she couldn’t stop crying for about 5, 10 minutes. I think it was very cathartic for her on many levels.

Hunte: And what about all the stuff, you know, you learned about your family? How’s she taking that all in?

Hall: It’s a lot to unpack. But I think she’s—I think she’s able to see it from a different perspective. And I think that has given her something of a, I don’t know, release or something in this moment in her life.

(The piano continues.)

Alina Kulman: This episode was produced by Tracie Hunte and Peter Bresnan with help from me, Alina Kulman. Editing by Emily Botein, Julia Longoria, and Jenny Lawton.

Fact-check by Will Gordon. Sound design by David Herman with additional engineering by Joe Plourde.

Music by Tasty Morsels and Joe Plourde.

Our team also includes Natalia Ramirez, Kelly Prime, and Gabrielle Berbey.

Hunte: Hey, this is Tracie again! I just wanted to pop in and give a very special thank-you to B.A. Parker, who loves movies more than anyone else I know and gave a lot of great feedback on this episode. Thank you, Parker.

Kulman: If you enjoyed today’s episode, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listened.

And if you’re a student or recent grad and want to join our team, please apply for our paid spring internship. We’re accepting applications until November 29. Find out more on this episode’s page at

The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.

(The piano music plays for a long while, smooth and gentle, before quietly fading to silence.)

Copyright © 2021 The Atlantic and New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at for further information.

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