Hall herself grew up in England as white. "I don't have any experience of being a Black person in America," she added. "I don't know what that feels like because I present as white, I go through the world as white ... But I do have an experience of being raised by people who were also raised by people who made choices that were shaped by living in a racist society." Which, she felt, qualified her to adapt Larsen's story for the screen. Producers Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi agreed, and their company Significant Productions backed the film.
If you haven't read the book, here's the story: Clare Kendry is a mixed-race woman raised by her biracial father's white aunts after he dies. (Her Black mother is long gone; the book doesn't say how or why.) The aunts tolerated—but did not embrace—Clare, so as soon as she was an adult, she fled their household and began living as a white woman. Her pale skin and blonde hair caught the eye of a wealthy, bigoted businessman who assumed she was white; she allowed him to assume, and they married.
Clare became a mother, but was on tenterhooks until her daughter's birth, hoping her child would be pale enough to pass—which would also keep her own secret safe. She was, and Clare decided not to have other children because the risk of being outed by a dark baby would ruin her deception.
That worry allayed, Clare progresses through life blithely enjoying the privilege her pale skin and her husband's money provide—until she runs into her childhood bestie, Irene Redfield, in a hotel restaurant. Irene is passing too—but only for a few hours, to get a cold drink on a hot day in a place that doesn't admit Negroes as patrons. After some astonishment that they'd met again, the two reconnect, and things get ... complicated.
Clare's renewed relationship with Irene awakens in her an interest in becoming part of—or at least occasionally visiting—the Black community she abandoned. Here lies the central question of the film: Can you pass in and out of your racial identity? Clare's frequent uptown visits to Irene's family and her cadged invitations to social events held by Harlem's Black elite—even while married to her unsuspecting white husband—say "yes." Clare is welcomed by the chic, socially conscious Harlem crowd that seems to make being Black much more interesting than the bleached, easier existence she has chosen for herself.
But as Irene initially suspected, things will not end well. And Clare's reappearance raises internal and external tensions in Irene's life, too. Suddenly Clare's risk-taking (or recklessness, depending on how one looks at passing) makes Irene feel staid and ordinary. The marriage to her handsome doctor husband that she'd so prized feels less perfect than it once was. Brian Redfield has been urging his wife for several years now to agree to move from America to Brazil, which he assumes will be less toxic to Black people than lynch-happy America has proven to be. They fight constantly over whether their young sons should be shielded from racism at their tender age (Clare's preference), or educated about it (Brian wants them forewarned about the world's ugly realities). Both parents are seeking to protect their boys, but in opposite ways.