‘Culture Is Not Something That You Can Learn’
Filmmaker and comedian Robin Cloud’s documentary project Passing has been a long time coming. The Connecticut native first learned about the branch of her family that had decided to pass for white when she was just a young girl—though, as she explains, back then she didn’t understand why they’d made such an enormous decision, or what the concept of “passing” even meant.
By the time Cloud was an adult, the Howard University graduate had a much more substantial understanding of African American history, and the what, where, and why around issues of race, identity, and family. But without a direct connection to the side of the family that had left so many decades earlier—the “Nebraska cousins,” as she calls them—she was hard pressed to understand the “who” or the “how.” In 2008, she decided to change all that, and embarked on a journey of discovery that informs her latest work: the story of a family lost, then found. Below, Robin shares more about the genesis of the six-episode series, the experience of making it, and its aftermath.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Anna Holmes: Where did the idea to do this come from?
Robin Cloud: I studied film at Howard, and I’d really always been passionate about documentary. I work in narrative too, but I do love documentary film, especially about history, and especially African American history. I knew about the concept of passing, and to have that exist in my own family was very interesting to me—I know that a lot of African American families have experienced it. Initially, I did not think of it as a film; my first instinct was to just try to find these cousins and talk to them. And that’s what I did. My grandmother, after me haranguing her several times, finally told me what her cousin’s married name was, and that’s how I was able to find them.
How long had you known about this side of your family—the Nebraska cousins?
I knew about these particular family members—my grandmother’s first cousins—my whole life. People in my family always referred to them as Mae, Willa Mae, and the Nebraska cousins. I guess when I was little I didn’t fully understand the concept, but I knew them to be people who were related to us, but who had left the family. Our family had a mixed reaction. I think most of the older generation, they were sort of like, “Well, they left us, and that was their choice,” and kind of just threw their hands up at the idea of what [those people] were up to and how they were doing. It was pretty clear that Willa Mae and her husband didn't want our family members to have any contact with them, for obvious reasons, because they were passing and they didn't want the truth to come out.
Can you explain to me how everyone is related to one another?
So, my grandmother, Mae Dell Brown—that was her married name; she was born Mae Dell Ragin—was related to Willa Mae Lane, who was Willa Mae Watson. Their parents were brother and sister. They were first cousins.
When you're talking about when you started thinking about trying to approach this in terms of telling a story, when are we talking about?
Was there something that happened in 2008 that opened this up for you?
No, that was the beginning of—well, a couple of things. One, I was working as the preservation director at the Weeksville Heritage Center, which is an African American historic museum in Brooklyn. We started teaching community folks about genealogy and I was the supervising staff member who had to sit in and have the site open while the teacher came and talked to the genealogy class. I've always liked genealogy, but then to have someone talk you through how and what it means to use the census as a research tool, and all of that—I found it really, really fascinating. I was in the process of solving another family mystery on my dad’s side, so I was sort of like, Maybe there's something here that I can find. And maybe these children who never knew are looking for their family members. It's a possibility.
Okay, so this is 2008 and you're bugging your grandmother—or nagging her, I think is the word you used. Were you nagging her for contact info, or were you nagging her just for background info?
I was nagging her just for Willa Mae's married name, because I didn't know what it was. I knew she was in Omaha, and I knew that if I could at least find out her last name, then maybe I could look her up.
Your grandmother was not willing, at first, to give you her cousin’s married name.
No, definitely not.
Why do you think that is? Was she protecting her?
My grandma was of the mind—and I think of the generation—of, “They left us. Screw them.”
Okay. So, what brought her around to giving you Willa Mae’s married surname?
You know what? I think I asked her so many times that she kind of told me just to shut me up.
Then it was so easy. I went back to Brooklyn, I went on White Pages online, and I just put in Willa Mae’s name. There were like two people, maybe, and I just called. I picked the right one. The phone rang and it was picked up by Becky Jo’s daughter—one of Willa Mae’s grandchildren. It turned out the Willa Mae was in a nursing home, and they had had the phone redirected to Becky Jo's house. I was like, “Hi, I'm calling to speak to Willa Mae Lane,” and this woman was like, “She’s in a nursing home.” I said, “Oh.” And she said, “You should probably talk to my mother.”
Then Becky Jo was like, “Hello, this is Becky Jo. How can I help you?” And I said, “Hi, I think we’re related. My name is Robin. I’m from Connecticut, but my grandmother is from Summerton, South Carolina, and I believe that your mom, Willa Mae Watson, was from South Carolina.” And I just started telling her the little bits of things that I knew about her family. She knew her mom was from Summerton, but she didn’t know really anything else about her. She was really excited because she had never talked to another relative outside of their immediate family. Ever. Becky Jo was maybe in her late 50s then.
I’m like, “And, you know, we’re black.” And she was like, “What?” And I said, “Yeah, your mom is black.” And she goes, “Oh, that explains why I have to straighten my hair.” And she laughed. Becky has a great sense of humor, so it’s very in character for her to say something crazy like that. She laughed, and I laughed, and she said, “I wonder if my dad was black, too.” And I said, “Oh, he was.” She was like, “What?”
We began this decade-long correspondence of sending each other photos, and we just built the whole history together over email. Then she gradually, I think, told some of her family members, and some of them were interested. I think only one of her siblings was really interested—one of her sisters who has since passed away.
When you say interested, what do you mean? Like, interested in talking to you?
Yeah, or interested in even hearing the truth.
Do you know whether Becky Jo told Willa Mae about these calls and emails?
From what I remember, they tried to talk to her later in life. She was already old at that point, but later, toward her death, she refused to talk about it. She would say stuff like, “Johnny told me never to say that. Don’t talk to me about that.” She would shut them down.
Did Becky Jo ever tell you, at that point, if she had told her own children? If she had told her husband? What were their reactions?
She did tell her husband, because her husband’s very into genealogy too. I can’t remember if she told me about telling her kids. I feel like I would have remembered if it was, like, a very dramatic response.
Did you notice an evolution in how Becky Jo talked about learning about this side of her family, this aspect of her history, as the years went by?
I think we became closer in the process. I mean, she’s funny; she never was like, “Wow, this shifts my whole perception of self.” It wasn’t that. I feel like, for her, it was more of a genealogy experiment—or a genealogy project. This is my own perception, but I don’t think it was ever like, “Oh, I’m going to have some sort of cultural identity shift.”
At what point did you decide that you wanted to make a documentary about this?
Well, over the years, I had been inviting Becky Jo to the family reunions, and she’d had some illnesses that prevented her from coming. Then in the summer of 2016, I was like, “Listen, it’s the family reunion. We’re going to South Carolina. I would love to meet you if you can come.” And she was like, “Okay, I’m coming. This time, I’m really coming.” And she asked her doctor, and her doctor said she could fly, and so I was like, Oh my god, this is really happening. So I thought, Well, I have to record this meeting, because I'll never be able to just meet her for the first time ever again.
How did you decide you wanted to approach the film—how you wanted to shoot this particular story? Obviously you didn’t know how it was going to evolve, but did you have a plan in place?
No. I normally plan things out, but I did not have a plan. I literally texted my friend Amber Fares and was like, “Dude, I got this money. This shit is happening. Can you come with me to South Carolina for four days?” And she was like, “Yeah!” I booked our tickets and she was like, “Well, what are we going to do?” And I was like, “I don’t know. We’re just going to … just follow me around and we’ll just shoot it.” And she was like, “Okay.”
Amber is an amazing cinematographer and director in her own right; she made an incredible documentary called Speed Sisters about Palestinian female race car drivers. She’s a badass, and she can shoot anything at any time. So I knew that if she could make a film in Palestine [while] getting rockets launched at her, she can come with me to South Carolina and shoot this family reunion. We just went. It all happened so fast, honestly, I didn’t even have time to plan.
How did your feelings about race in America in general and, more specifically, your own experience as a black woman change or evolve over the course of that shoot and the weeks and months that followed? Did you feel that it had an effect on you?
For sure. It was very emotional, because I realized that I had a lot of expectations around what I thought my cousins’ reactions might be. I think I went in thinking, Here I am, able to open the door to all this family history for them, and all this black culture, and black identity—and I found that they generally were interested in the family history, but they were not interested in black identity or culture, because they grew up white. And whether or not they’re genetically black or people of color or mixed race, however you want to describe them, culture is not something that you can really learn. And so that was really interesting.
It also sounds like it was disappointing. There's a moment in Passing where it seems like you're disappointed that they don't seem that interested in exploring.
Yeah, it was disappointing for me. Also, I understand it on an intellectual level. It’s very complicated, and right now, it’s a very complicated time to be tackling race and having your identity shift in such a profound way. Becky Jo was a Trump supporter; I don’t know if she still is, but she was when he was running the first time around. You know, it says a lot.
Did you talk to her about Trump?
You didn't at all?
What do you think you have in common with the Nebraska cousins?
I would say they have a very big family, and they’re very close. And I would say their love for their family, their immediate family, is very similar to the Ragin–Watsons. We’re a huge, close family, and I think we all value that a lot.
How has your experience or understanding of yourself as a black American woman changed over the course of your life?
I grew up in Connecticut. My parents were very successful, very well-educated, very black-identified. They continue to work, and both of them set their lives in the black community—both my dad, working in the non-profit sector and corporate public giving, and my mom as an educator and a teacher. Later in life, she became a principal. They’re incredible people, and they raised me and my two older brothers with very, very, very strong, solid black identity. There was never a time when I questioned who I was, where I came from, what it meant to be black in America, because all that was explained to me at a very young age.
When I was called a nigger for the first time in junior high, I was already prepared. I knew. I was like, “Okay. You know what’s going to happen to you? You’re getting suspended.” And I went straight to the principal’s office, reported it—boom. And that was that. That’s carried me through my life. I came out when I was in high school, which was challenging. There was no gay-straight alliance. There was no support. Then I went to Howard, which was an interesting place to be a black gay woman—in the ‘90s, it was very homophobic. My friends and I started the first gay and lesbian student group on campus.
That was history being made.
That was history, yes. We were harassed, and they would come to our meetings. It was ridiculous, but we did it, and we survived.
And then I went from Howard, one black city, to Brooklyn. And Brooklyn raised me. Connecticut is my home, but Brooklyn is really my home. I’m getting emotional just talking about it. I spent my whole adult life there, and we were an amazing group of friends. I got sober in Brooklyn. I had an amazing community that really nurtured me as an artist, in all the ways that I wanted to try to experience art—musically, doing stand-up, writing, shooting videos. Everything that I wanted to do, there was room for it to be done in Brooklyn. It was a really interesting and beautiful place to be young and black in the early 2000s, and be an artist. It was heaven.
Do you connect your experience with Brooklyn—what Brooklyn gave you, and how Brooklyn shaped you—with the decision to make this film?
Probably, because I feel like Brooklyn is a place where, if you’re not confident, you’re probably not going to survive. It definitely gave me ... I don’t want to say “the balls,” because that gives men too much credit. It definitely gave me the confidence to just decide on something and go for it. That’s the kind of place that Brooklyn is. You see people doing that every day, all day—just hustling, and working three or four jobs, and trying stuff—and you’re inspired. It’s part of the culture to be bold.
Okay, so after you finished shooting, you put some samples together and began pitching it around, right?
After I finished shooting, I came back and had an editor make two little ten-minute samples: one with some South Carolina footage, one from the Nebraska trip. I met this woman Stef Gordon, who at the time was working at Ark Media [the production company behind Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s television program Finding Your Roots]. I pitched her the story and she was like, “Oh yeah, that sounds great. Send me what you have.” So I sent it to her, and she loved it, and then we signed a development deal to try to make something happen. They made a teaser, which was great, and then they went off pitching. And everybody said no.
Some of the feedback was, “Well, no one's going to watch a black lesbian with an Afro talk about ...”
Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Did someone really say that?
Oh my God.
Someone said that to Stef, and then she said that to me. Their counter-pitch was, “We need to get her a white male co-host.” And I was like, “Absolutely not. No. I’m not doing that.” Stef would come back to me and tell me what they said, and I would be outraged and horrified, and then we’d go back. We got an offer from one company, but they dragged their feet and wanted to make so many changes, and I was just like, “No.” Our deal expired and I just pulled out. I felt like I had been in a washing machine of getting further and further and further away from what this project was about for me. And it was a good lesson, because I'd never tried to do this before. I had never shot something and been like, “I don’t know what this is. I’m trying to make this thing.” But I learned very quickly that that was not the avenue that I wanted to go on.
Now that it’s done and being released into the world, what are you nervous about? What are you excited about?
I’m a very private person, even though I’m a stand-up comic, and I am on social media and whatever. My 2017 film, Out Again, was out there and different, but it was a narrative film. This is much more personal and feels, to me, much more vulnerable. So I guess the level of exposure and having not just my family but my story out there is a little nerve-wracking.
What is your worst fear of what people might say?
Oh God. I don’t even want to say it, because I’m then calling it into existence.
Or you might do the exact opposite.
I feel that people might judge me for wanting to find my family members.
Is doing a project like this scarier than doing stand-up comedy, in terms of putting yourself out there?
Not to sound braggadocious, I just never found stand-up to be that hard. It was an art form that came to me after playing music for many years. I was getting sick of having to coordinate so many people in a band. I was like, I’m going to try something that’s just me.
Stand-up is rehearsed. Not to pull the veil down on stand-up, but no one’s getting up there and doing shit that they haven’t said before, unless they’re insane. We know what doesn't work. It takes time to get good and it takes time to find your own voice. People said when I started, “Oh, yeah, you get ten years, and then you really find your voice.” And I really found that to be true. You get to the point where you can do your set, and then you can go off and do some audience work, and then come right back into it and get in that pocket and finish it up strong. It just feels very good, but it takes a long time.
What is going to be next for you in the short term, and then in the not-so-short term?
I just wrapped on my second short, 2 Dollars, a queer workplace comedy that I’m very, very excited about because I did it through the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. We went through the amazing training program and I just learned so much more than I ever thought I could about film. It was like graduate school in a practical year. I was really able to apply everything that I learned to this film. I didn’t want to make a comedy that looked like a comedy. I wanted to make a beautiful film that also made you laugh. I think I succeeded. We’ll see.
How do you feel about the current landscape in regards to opportunities for black directors, particularly black female directors?
I’m having a moment.
You’re having a moment? Hopefully it’s not just a moment. Hopefully it’s the beginning.
After being an artist for so many years, it’s like you’re out there ... I’m not a surfer, but I have taken a surf lesson. And it is that moment where you see the wave coming, and damn it, you’d better get ready. That’s what it feels like to me: I spent all this time creating shit, and now, after, what, 14 years of doing stand-up talking about being black and gay … nobody wanted to hear that shit. For years, I would be one of two, maybe three, out black female comedians in New York talking about lesbian sex. Okay? One in a show of 15 people.
It was terrible, because people would tell me not to do that—that I shouldn’t be out. I had an acting teacher tell me I shouldn’t be out because it was going to limit my career. I was like, “I’m sorry, there’s absolutely no other way for me to live my life. If it means limitation, let it be. Fuck it.” Now, I feel like, wow. The doors are open, I can talk about whatever I want. I can make whatever I want. People care. It’s refreshing that the world has caught up.