Raising Our Voices: How the Craft Masters of ‘Passing’ Helped Tell a Story of American Colorism
To work their way up to designing costumes, hair and productions for this awards contender, Marci Rodgers, Nora Mendis and Barbara Roman held down "safe" jobs while seeking out mentors like Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, as they tell it in this inaugural installment of The Hollywood Reporter’s series.
Passing, the directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall, is a film about identity — specifically, the identity of Black women living on the racial margins during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. It’s fitting, then, that Hall — whose multiracial grandfather passed for white — staffed her crew with such Black women as costume designer Marci Rodgers, hair department head Barbara Roman and production designer Nora Mendis, who share a personal connection to the themes, setting and original novel on which Passing is based.
The film, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, centers on the reunion of childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), two light-skinned Black women. Whereas Irene has married a Black man and fully immersed herself in the Harlem social scene, Clare is passing for white and is wedded to a white man and avowed racist. The contrast between the women’s respective worlds — and the tension that Irene feels about Clare’s precarious position — is heightened by Hall’s decision to shoot in black and white, a storytelling device that presented a creative but rewarding challenge for her department heads.
In addition to the three artisans highlighted on these pages, the people of color who brought Passing to the screen also include three-time Emmy-nominated makeup artist Marjorie Durand (Saturday Night Live, Black Swan); British composer Devonté Hynes (Queen & Slim, Netflix’s Naomi Osaka docuseries), aka singer-songwriter Blood Orange; and producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker of Significant Productions.
Yang Bongiovi was unaware of Hall’s parentage when the director, who had tried in vain to find financing, approached her with the script in 2018. With a track record that includes Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, authenticity in storytelling has been a signature of Significant’s slate. Hall’s family history of passing “[made] her the perfect person to tell this story,” Yang Bongiovi told THR in January.
For their artistry in bringing to life a story about the complicated dynamics and pervasive legacy of colorism in Black America, THR’s Raising Our Voices highlights the cast and crew of Passing, and in particular the unsung artists leading the charge behind the scenes.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Raising Our Voices series, presented by Walmart, focuses on emerging artisans from backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in Hollywood. The featured craftspeople have been selected by THR editors from 2021’s most critically acclaimed films.
Mentorship — and a touch of serendipity — have been the governing forces in Rodgers’ career. The Evanston, Illinois, native studied marketing at Howard University and upon graduation spent eight years working in the admissions department at the storied HBCU’s law school, all the while harboring fantasies of becoming a costume designer. For a time, she hedged her bets — taking Howard fashion design courses electively, using vacations to earn a fashion design certificate from London’s Central Saint Martins. “At the time, I was playing it safe,” says Rodgers (who had also earned an MBA from Florida International University), but fate intervened. While on furlough from Howard Law, she met Reggie Ray, the late theater costume designer and Howard professor who would become her first mentor.
Rodgers assisted Ray on the Tupac Shakur jukebox musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, and at its Broadway opening, she introduced herself to Spike Lee. “I didn’t know if he was going to be receptive or not,” she says, but he was, putting the aspiring costume designer in touch with Ruth E. Carter, who invited Rodgers to spend a week assisting on a project in Atlanta, and then hired her as a costume production assistant on Lee’s Chi-Raq.
It was invaluable experience for Rodgers, who by then was back in school yet again, this time for a costume design MFA at the University of Maryland (she had received a full-ride scholarship offer from professor Helen Huang, who became her academic mentor). Rodgers was the only student of color in her program, and after graduating a semester early at the top of her class, landed her first major costume designer gig, for Lee’s series adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It, which would run on Netflix for two seasons.
“I was grateful for the tutelage I was able to have around me,” reflects Rodgers, 39, who in five years since earning her MFA has already won filmmaker admirers. After she wrapped on BlacKkKlansman, Steven Soderbergh hired her for High Flying Bird as well as this year’s crime drama No Sudden Move. When Nina Yang Bongiovi sent her agent the Passing script, Rodgers recalled her MFA final project: to render a Christian Lacroix design in black and white. “I thought I was being punished,” she says now with a laugh. “Everyone else was painting in colors, and I had to figure out the color values between white and black.”
Thanks to Huang’s assignment, Rodgers is quite comfortable dealing with shades of gray. She is an advocate for artists from historically excluded backgrounds like hers (during the pandemic, she self-published a children’s book, MaJaRa’s Dream, in part to provide “more representation of kids of color”), but her experience in the industry has been marked by generosity — such as the legendary Ann Roth giving Rodgers access to her costume stock to pull period pieces for Passing. That inclusive spirit is one she wants to pay forward. “I’m a Black woman, but I try to approach [projects] as a collaborator, so at that point, we’re now speaking the same language,” says Rodgers.
“I’m thankful to God because I said I wanted to design for Spike Lee and that happened,” she adds. “Ocean’s 11 is one of my favorite movies, and I ended up working with Soderbergh, another mentor. I watched School Daze, and now I have Ruth as a mentor. I remember being at University of Maryland in the costume shop saying, ‘I’m going to design a movie on Emmett Till,’ and six years later I am.” See? Serendipity.
OTHER CREDITS Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga
NEXT UP Till, the Whoopi Goldberg-produced feature about the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till
Hair Department Head
Styling Black hair is a reverent practice for Barbara Roman. “When we were kings and queens, our hair was our crown. Our hair represented our wealth, what village we came from, so much more than what America and the rest of the world want to believe. Our hair was truly our representation of who we were as people,” she explains. “Then when slavery came about, our hair was chopped off, and they stripped us of our crown. That still holds in our hearts today, when we’re criticized for our hair, or the time it takes to do our hair is not considered important.”
Roman, 60, came of age on 125th Street in Harlem, braiding hair for the boys and girls in the neighborhood. “Growing up in the ’70s, when Black folks came out of relaxers and went into natural hair, all the guys took a lot of pride in wearing big ‘fros, and the girls wearing ‘fros and pom-poms,” she reminisces.
But it wouldn’t be until her mid-30s that Roman would pursue her passion professionally. She had had her first child at age 18 and became a teacher’s assistant. Still braiding for extra income on the side, Roman eventually went to beauty school to get her hairstyling license, picking up shifts at a salon while working for the education board. She decided to aim for a bachelor’s degree but got sidetracked by the art course offerings, which is how Roman was introduced to theater.
The first show she worked on was the Central Park staging of The Tempest, starring Patrick Stewart. “Once I walked into The Public Theater, I knew what I wanted to do,” says Roman, who for the next handful of seasons pulled double duty with the Public and the Board of Ed. “Even though I was a grown woman now with children, my mom was like, ‘You can’t leave a city job.’ So it took me four years to actually transition.”
Once she fully committed to styling hair for the stage, Roman hit Broadway, handing out her résumé to anyone who would take it. She booked swing work (replacing any stylist taking a show off) and learned the tracks (a crewmember’s set routine) and eventually landed a staff position at The Phantom of the Opera, about as much job security as one can find in theater.
Roman would ultimately stay with the production for eight years, but halfway through, restlessness kicked in. A colleague told her about an opening at Saturday Night Live, and she began taking Saturdays off from Phantom to do hair at the sketch comedy show. “I had the experience of doing really quick changes, and I was gaining the experience of working on television,” Roman says of her SNL tenure at 30 Rock, which lasted 14 seasons. “I started working downstairs at the Today show in the early mornings, and then you start hitting every floor at NBC.”
During the past decade, Roman has styled hair on various New York-based productions including Power, The Get Down and Billions, and she earned her first department head position in 2019 with Epix’s Godfather of Harlem — from Significant Productions. When Nina Yang Bongiovi called to invite her to join Passing, it was a no-brainer. “Period is actually my favorite,” says Roman, who adds that her biggest challenge on the movie was getting the right shade of blond for Ruth Negga’s wig — and maintaining it for the duration of the monthlong shoot, since the limited budget did not allow for a backup wig.
Roman is grateful for the amplified conversation about the need to diversify Hollywood’s hair (and makeup) trailers, even as she notes that West Coast sets seem to be faring worse than their New York counterparts. “My journey has been interesting in the sense that my mentors have been Black women,” she says. “They were my angels, guiding me through when I was ready to move [to the next stage]. My experience has been somewhat different than for a lot of us, but it doesn’t make the reality less real.”
OTHER CREDITS Hulu’s High Fidelity, The Photograph
Nora Mendis first read Passing in college at Tufts, where she was studying painting and film at its School of the Museum of Fine Arts. “It blew my mind,” says the D.C.-born, Chicago-raised designer, who is the daughter of an interracial couple and identifies as Black. “My grandmother had people in the family who passed. They were coming for Thanksgiving a bunch of years, and then they just stopped and were gone. There’s a fair amount of bitterness in the loss that happens there, on both sides of the coin.”
And so when Mendis met with director Rebecca Hall years later about the film adaptation, the project was personal to her, and she knew she had to be involved, even though it ultimately meant spending the shoot “extremely pregnant,” wrapping production four days before her due date. As with many of her fellow department heads, the film’s monochrome palette meant greater attention to textures and reflections: chrome, glass and avant-garde furniture in Clare’s harshly bright hotel room, in contrast to the heavy heirloom wooden pieces in Irene’s house, alternately warm and suffocating.
Passing is Mendis’ highest-profile project to date, though during the past decade she has built a consistent filmography of independent features through peer referrals and word-of-mouth. Her focus in college had been on experimental film, and when she moved to New York to break into the narrative film industry, she knew she wanted to work in the art department, though in what specific capacity, she wasn’t sure. “I started at the bottom and moved my way up,” she says, bartending for a few years (an unpaid internship, “the classic way to move up,” was unaffordable, as it is for many people of color, Mendis notes) while picking up whatever art department jobs she could find. Mendis worked in props, set dressing and set decorating, eventually narrowing her preference to production design. “I think it’s so helpful to have done all the jobs in your department,” she says. “You have a better understanding of what everybody else is dealing with and the things that are difficult or can make the workflow more collaborative.”
Despite art departments being among the biggest units on a production, Mendis says they remain overwhelmingly white. “In terms of Black production designers, I could probably count them on one hand,” she adds. “There are institutional issues: unpaid internships, the cost of joining the union can be prohibitively expensive, and it seems like the onus of experience is much more placed on women and people of color in a way it’s not on other people.”
For Mendis, using her role to push against these barriers is important. “I try to bring in as many people of color as I possibly can to show the diversity in my work life that I have in my normal life.” There are also other ways to effect equity and inclusion: On the HBO skateboarder comedy series Betty, her second collaboration with creator Crystal Moselle after the 2018 feature Skate Kitchen, Mendis included artwork from queer artists of color and compelled the art clearance department budget to pay them for it. “The budget needs to be made such that we [are] valuing the culture we are showing,” she says. “That doesn’t mean making a fake version of a thing that exists. That means reaching out to the people making these things and bringing them to the table. I think I was able to do that on Betty, and hopefully I’ll be able to continue to do that.”
OTHER CREDITS The Incredible Jessica James, Showtime’s Couples Therapy
NEXT UP FX’s Kindred pilot adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s classic 1979 novel, directed by Janicza Bravo
This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.