Passing by Rebecca Hall
Based on the Novella of the same name by Nella Larsen, published in 1929
Second draft revisions, dated July 26, 2017

Book Description: Clare and Irene were two childhood friends. They lost touch when Clare’s father died and she moved in with two white aunts. By hiding that Clare was part-black, they allowed her to ‘pass’ as a white woman and marry a white racist. Irene lives in Harlem, commits herself to racial uplift, and marries a black doctor. The novel centers on the meeting of the two childhood friends later in life, and the unfolding of events as each woman is fascinated and seduced by the other’s daring lifestyle. The end of the novel is famous for its ambiguity. Many see this novel as an example of the plot of the tragic mulatto, a common figure in early African-American literature. Recently, Passing has received renewed attention because of its close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities and liminal spaces. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities.

Budget – Reception – Quick Thought On The Script Format

With only a $10 million budget, doesn’t seem much of a risk for Netflix, though I have not seen any numbers on how it’s been performing since its release in October. It’s showing a 90% on RT, with an 85% audience score along with a 6.6/10 on IMDb.

It’s a fast read at 119p, with short blocks of description – though not as sure as some I’ve seen the last few years. And while it’s based on a novel, the script feels much like a play, just with all the dialogue and how much of it is used as clear exposition, which I find more prevalent in plays than most produced scripts. As for spelling/grammar, I seem to have noticed one or two small things but I didn’t make any notes so I’m going to say the grammar was good enough.

Is There An Audience For This?

Again, while I don’t see any numbers available, it certainly feels like there would be an audience in today’s world for this story and the themes it explored.

Irene is a fair-skinned black woman married to Brian, a black doctor. Clare, on the other hand, is light-skinned enough to pass for white, and in 1929 New York that’s what she has decided to do, marrying a racist white man. We know this, because in one of the many instances of the dialogue being a bit “on the nose,” Clare’s husband John refers to her as a “n**.” Why? Well, John’s explanation is that she seems to be getting “darker” over time. Which leads to this exchange:

So you dislike Negroes, Mr.

Oh no Mrs. Redfield, nothing like
that at all.

Oh – ?
I don’t dislike them. I hate them.
Hate them – and so does N**… –
for all she’s trying to turn into
one – she won’t even have a maid
one round her!

He somehow takes IRENE’S expression for grave

…Not that I’d want her to. They
give me the willies. The black
scrimy devils…ha ha,

OK, I think we all clearly understand that John is a racist. Even with the source material being over 90’s years old, it just feels like that could have been handled better. It’s clear John is speaking to us, the audience as opposed to the other characters.

In the following conversation, when Irene & Clare are meeting after a long time, this exchange just reminded of those examples in screenwriting books of bad exposition:

Really – of all the people I
could’ve hoped to run into. It’s
too lucky, isn’t it?

It’s awfully surprising, yes.

CLARE smiles, a secret smile – You too?

Well it’s the last place on earth
I’d expect to see you, Clare,
that’s probably why I didn’t
recognise you.

Mmm… Well. It’s been a long
time. Twelve years, easily! We’ve
some catching up to do

“It’s been a long time. Twelve years…” I felt like she was talking out of the page directly to me LOL. There are more subtle ways to do that scene.

Plot Thoughts

I have not read the novel, but based on the book description and now having read the script, I didn’t come away thinking Irene & Clare were both seduced by each other’s life style. Clare, who is certainly hiding a lot more than Irene, seems to be fascinated with Irene’s life – Irene is living out in the open, while Clare’s racist husband doesn’t even realize she’s black. She lives in fear of him finding out.

The story is fairly straight-forward from there. Clare begins to hang around Irene and takes quite a shine to Brian – or, at least, she appears to. Certain scenes in the movie make you wonder if Irene is imaging the connection between her husband and Claire. Whether or not that’s the case, the story hits pretty standard beats as it moves towards a conclusion.

It’s hard to tell for sure if Brian and Clare are really going behind Irene’s back with an affair, but I think we can all know this is not going to end well.

*Spoiler Alert*
Eventually John tracks Irene down to a party, and doesn’t seem pleased it’s a party full of black people. In the ensuing commotion, Clare falls out a window to her death. It’s left ambiguous as to what happened (in the script, at least). She may have just fallen, or it’s possible she was pushed by either Irene or John, but there was too much going on for anyone to be sure.

It appears the Irene & Brian live happily ever after. Which, is fine, but again there were not really any surprises with how things played out.


I thought the description was fine. More workmanlike than anything else, though I did like this specific bit:

He lingers. Finally turns around and looks at her.

To us he looks frail – like a man in love with his wife
but unable to connect to her anymore. From his
perspective she is a woman slipping out of his grasp into
a depressive fog.

TO her he is a man guilty of being in love with a woman

other than his wife.

Can’t say any other passages stood out that much, but in its own way that’s not a bad thing. The description did its job, kept my eyes moving down the page, as did the dialogue.


Honestly, Irene was the only character I ever felt any connection to. It just didn’t feel like I got to know any of the others except on a surface level (ex. John – Racist / Clare – Jealous Friend).

Due to this, I didn’t find much of an emotional attachment as I was reading it through.


Besides the standard themes of love, jealousy, a bit of motherhood etc., I did think the story had an interesting racial angle that brought us in to that world. I myself had never heard of “passing” or “racial passing.”

So I went where we all do… Wikipedia:

Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of a racial group is accepted or perceived (“passes”) as a member of another. Historically, the term has been used primarily in the United States to describe a person of color or of multiracial ancestry who assimilated into the white majority to escape the legal and social conventions of racial segregation and discrimination.

So in this story, you have the dueling identities of two black women, one who has utilized passing to get what she hopes is a better life, and another who seems to have embraced her identity, but also comes across as not always being sure she made the right choice.

Overall Thoughts

It may not have always sounded like it, but I did enjoy this script. Can’t say I loved it, but I liked it. I would day it’s worth checking out for what felt to me was a unique angle into racism. And it’s also a good example of not having to be flashy with your script, while still writing both description and dialogue that flow down the pages.

If the story sounds interesting to you, give it a read.

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