From Page to Screen: Passing

It has taken nearly 100 years for the novel Passing by Nella Larsen (1929) to make its way to our screens, and for the term to start to find its way back into our broader cultural awareness and lexicon.

The two female creative forces behind Passing, author Nella Larsen and director Rebecca Hall, have more in common than you might think on first glance.

Nella Larsen was born to a Danish mother and a West Indian father. Years later, her father disappeared and her mother married a Dane, with whom she had another daughter. By all appearances, the family was white, but Nella was different. This sense of straddling two worlds no doubt informed her work which centered on racial passing, and on the themes of isolation and otherness.

In Passing, her second novel, the story begins with the reunion of two childhood friends – Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield – and tracks their increasing fascination with each other’s lives. Clare Kendry is living her life passing as white, something of which her wealthy white husband, Jack Bellew, is unaware. Irene in contrast is an active member of the Black community, only ever passing when it provides convenience. The novel centres on the tension between the friends – one who chooses to pass and the other who chooses not to – and the risk that Claire’s secret is discovered.

When director Rebecca Hall first read the book 13 years ago, she had a personal epiphany. While reading the story of these fictional light-skinned African American women, Hall realised that her maternal grandfather must also have passed as white.

She recalls always having questions about her mother’s racial identity:

To me, she always looked Black. Certainly growing up in the English countryside and going to very white private schools, I was aware of her difference. So I would ask her, “What are we? What’s our heritage? Tell me about your father?” And she would say, “I don’t really know. It’s possible that he was a bit Black or a bit Native American. I don’t really know.” 

Rebecca Hall

It was Nella Larsen’s book that led her to unlock her family history, give her the language to understand it, and to subsequently take on bringing this story to our screens as a very personal project.

Continue the Story


Watch actress Tessa Thompson, who plays Irene in the screen adaptation, read a passage from Passing and see how it is creatively brought to life on the screen.


Nella Larsen’s novel paved the way for many modern passing narratives, including Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.  Read her thoughts on the book here:

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