Netflix Book Club uploaded its first video episode in a series looking at the streaming giant’s film adaptations based on popular books. The inaugural selection is the almost century-old novel Passing by Nella Larsen that became Netflix’s most recent book-to-film adaptation that started streaming last week.
Now live on Netflix’s YouTube and Facebook channels, “But Have You Read The Book?” is hosted by Orange Is the New Black star Uzo Aduba sitting down at Starbucks Reserve Roastery New York with Passing film director Rebecca Hall and actors Ruth Negga and André Holland.
The film stars Tessa Thompson playing Irene Redfield, a Black woman in 1929 Harlem, who bumps into childhood friend Clare Kendry Bellew, played by Ruth, as they realize though they’re of the same race they are living on separate sides of the color line with Clare passing as a White woman. Based on the 1929 novel by Harlem Renaissance royalty Nella Larsen, the film and the book explores a toxic friendship where the two main characters wonder if the grass is greener on the other side as their lives unravel amid the fear of Clare’s dangerous secret becoming public.
Rebecca starts the book club conversation with what she says became stringing together her own family history with her grandfather being African American but living as a White man in the U.K.
“I grew up looking at my mother, thinking you’re a Black woman, you look to me like a Black woman, but that’s not in your lexicon,” she says. “It’s not how you’re talking about yourself. It’s not how you’re living your life because she wasn’t given that because her father was passing.”
Once she read the book, she says she had a better understanding of the situation surrounding her grandfather and countless others like him.
“This book was a big turning point for me because I didn’t know that there was this word ‘passing,'” she says. “This was something that many, many, many people of color in this country did to get better lives for themselves.”
Passing, or assuming another usually racial identity based on appearance, became a pathway for people of color to pursue their dreams and unlock their potential, Ruth says.
“To be quite clear about passing, many times it wasn’t a rejection of yourself, your Black self,” she says. “It wasn’t a rejection of your Black culture at all. It was a choice to choose a path of access. Access to what we would call White privilege.”
While her character Clare is considered the main one passing, the book unpacks the layers of Irene as a person also passing but in a different sense, such as a wife and friend becoming unstable when she believes she sees sparks fly between Clare and her husband Brian, played by André.
“Clare is obviously passing,” Rebecca says. “She’s gay when she needs to be. She’s straight when she needs to be. She behaves like a man when she needs to be. She behaves like a woman when she needs to be. She’s Black. She’s White. She’s this walking duality.”
Tessa Thompson, adorned in a Chanel choker, reads an excerpt in her taped cameo from when her character Irene notices the piercing gaze from Clare in the hotel tearoom where they reconnect. Irene is distraught the stranger—who she doesn’t know is her old friend Clare—could tell she’s a Black woman passing to gain entry into the posh hotel.
For slight changes in the film, Rebecca talks about how she allows Irene to reveal to her White author friend Hugh Wentworth, played by Bill Camp, that Clare is passing as White. It’s a dangerous move that Irene barely dodges in the book, failing to remove any suspicion of Clare at a time when she seems to notice Clare’s charisma suck the air out of a room and leave Irene envious. The book has Irene wrestle with revealing Clare’s secret, knowing she has the ante to destroy her friend while she also wants to protect her friend.
Irene’s back-and-forth with herself doesn’t save Clare from her tragic demise after being found out by her White bigoted husband John, played by Alexander Skarsgård. As John bangs on the door of a party in Harlem full of Black guests, he darts toward Clare, calling her a liar. Clare positions herself in front of an open window to get away from John and closer to Irene, but the sway of arms somehow forces Clare to fall out of the fifth-story window and into the snow. But whose arm is at fault is a mystery in the book as well as the film.
“Nella Larsen keeps it ambiguous for a good reason,” Rebecca says. “She’s also pointing out that it doesn’t really matter because everyone is sort of complicit in something. And also whatever happened, Irene does feel like she was responsible.”
To sum up the story, Uzo says the phrase spoken by Irene when discussing Clare with Hugh about everything not appearing as it seems threads the film together.
“We’re watching characters who can exist and move through life in ways that might not be as they seem,” she says. “I think it was consistent with the larger narrative being told throughout.”