How Netflix’s adaptation of Passing reflects the novel’s time — and ours

How Netflix’s adaptation of Passing reflects the novel’s time — and ours


Alissa Wilkinson

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing. Courtesy of Netflix

In Rebecca Hall’s film, Nella Larsen’s story comes to life in black and white.

Halfway through Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, the book’s protagonist, Irene Redfield, is feeling uneasy. She has just had a tense argument with her husband. Now, watching him fiddle with his hat, Irene is worrying: “Was she never to be free of it, that fear which crouched, always, deep down within her, stealing away the sense of security, the feeling of permanence, from the life which she had so admirably arranged for them all, and desired so ardently to have remain as it was?”

Larsen’s book is suffused with that sense of unease, the feeling that one wrong move might undo a life entirely, that the structures on which our families, routines, and even identities rest are precarious. And the new Netflix movie based on Larsen’s book, adapted for the screen by Rebecca Hall and starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, brings Larsen’s prose — unease and all — to vibrant, visual life.

The story transitions seamlessly to the screen in part because the “passing” of the title refers primarily (though not exclusively) to its main characters’ ability, in a segregated society, to “pass” as white. The story centers on Irene (Thompson) and a childhood friend, Clare Kendry (Negga), with whom Irene unexpectedly reconnects one day at a whites-only hotel. Both women are Black, having parents or grandparents who were Black, but both are also light-skinned enough for white people of similar social class to assume otherwise…

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