As is by now clear, I have my misgivings about Hall’s recent film, but, above all, I’m very glad that she made it. If nothing else, it is a sign of Larsen’s growing stature, a growth evident to any scholar who has been watching the ballooning scholarly interest in her work in the last decade.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2021-12-06 23:50Z by Steven

To be sure, there are other dimensions of this adaptation that deserve discussion—for example, the downplaying of Clare’s abusive childhood, which renders her passing a little more mercenary than it is in the novel—but I’ve already gone on too long. As is by now clear, I have my misgivings about [Rebecca] Hall’s recent film, but, above all, I’m very glad that she made it. If nothing else, it is a sign of [Nella] Larsen’s growing stature, a growth evident to any scholar who has been watching the ballooning scholarly interest in her work in the last decade. Having her novel adapted for the big screen constitutes a new stage in this evolution, for it makes her only the second novelist of the Harlem Renaissance to have her work adapted for film in a major way (Zora Neale Hurston was first, with Darnell Martin’s 2005 adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Rafael Walker, “Passing into Film: Rebecca Hall’s Adaptation of Nella Larsen,” Modernism/modernity, Volume 6, Cycle 2 (11/10/2021). https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/walker-passing-film-hall-adaptation-larsen.

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Passing into Film: Rebecca Hall’s Adaptation of Nella Larsen

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2021-12-03 15:18Z by Steven

Passing into Film: Rebecca Hall’s Adaptation of Nella Larsen

Modernism/modernity
Volume 6, Cycle 2 (2021-11-10)

Rafael Walker, Assistant Professor of English
Baruch College, City University of New York

Fig. 1. Promotional poster for Rebecca Hall’s Passing (2021). Image via IMDB.

Director Rebecca Hall’s recent adaptation of Nella Larsen’s exquisite second novel, Passing (1929), is visually stunning. I had the pleasure of seeing the film on the big screen, during its limited theatrical run and before its Netflix release. It was the ideal atmosphere for absorbing this cinematic rendering of Larsen’s eerie, anxiety-ridden plot: ensconced with a sparse audience (my companion and I comprising two of the four patrons for the 5:10pm showing) in a small independent theater in Manhattan, just a few miles from where the story is set, and with Halloween everywhere looming on this late-October evening.1

These qualities of the novel were only enhanced by Hall’s decision to film it in black and white, a daring choice that she, a first-time filmmaker, had to fight for, as Alexandra Kleeman of the New York Times reports. On the one hand, this artistic decision conjures all the nervous palpitations that Hitchcock made synonymous with black-and-white mise-en-scène, maintaining the unshakable uneasiness one experiences while reading Larsen’s novel. On the other, it hurls the either-or terms of Jim Crow racial binarism into conflict with a predominating grayscale—an all-pervading sign of the fictionality of the dichotomizations structuring American culture. Nothing could be more in the spirit of Nella Larsen’s novel. I suspect, however, that Hall’s departures from the source text will attract the attention of modernists far more than her convergences…

Read the entire review here.

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Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in “Quicksand” and “Passing”

Posted in Articles, Gay & Lesbian, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2016-02-26 21:10Z by Steven

Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in Quicksand and Passing

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 41, Number 1, Negotiating Trauma and Affect (Spring 2016)
Published 2016-01-25
pages 165-192
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlv083

Rafael Walker, Assistant Professor of English
Baruch College, City University of New York

Winner of MLA’s 2016 Crompton-Noll Award for Best Essay in LGBTQ Studies.

This paper challenges the pervasive tendency to treat Larsen’s work as explorations of black women’s lives and examines the distinctly biracial perspective that her fiction attempts to elaborate. I argue that her novels employ narratives of frustrated desire in order to show the impossibility of the racially liminal subject in a society that thinks in black and white. In developing this argument, the essay explains the aesthetic and theoretical implications that ensue from taking this biracial perspective seriously. For instance, it shows how each novel mobilizes a distinct ontology of biracial identity—biraciality as synthesis in one case (Quicksand [1928]) and biraciality as oscillation in the other (Passing [1929]). In its discussion of the aesthetics of Larsen’s fiction, the essay demonstrates how this shift in racial perspective enables us to reassess her endings, which vexed critics in her day and continue to vex readers in ours (including the scholar arguably most responsible for Larsen’s current prominence, Deborah E. McDowell). Aware that aversion to the essentialist “tragic mulatta” trope has been one of the primary impediments to concentrating on biraciality in Larsen’s work, I offer ways of understanding Larsen’s focus on biraciality as more—rather than less—subversive of American racial ideology than previous studies suggest.

The fictions of Nella Larsen have long been understood as daring explorations of black women’s sexuality and subjectivity. Deborah E. McDowell is one of the earliest and most influential exponents of this idea, suggesting that Larsen portrays “black female sexuality in a literary era that often sensationalized it and pandered to the stereotype of the primitive exotic” (xvi). According to Hazel V. Carby, Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928) is “the first explicitly sexual black heroine in black women’s fiction” (“It” 471). Similarly, Cheryl A. Wall claims: “Both Quicksand and Passing contemplate the inextricability of the racism and sexism that confront the black woman in her quest for selfhood” (89). The association between Larsen’s work and black women’s subjectivity was so entrenched by the time that Judith Butler wrote on Passing (1929) that she hesitates before applying psychoanalysis to the novel: “There are clearly risks in trying to think in psychoanalytic terms about Larsen’s story, which, after all, published in 1929, belongs to the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, and ought properly to be read in the context of that cultural and social world” (173). (It becomes clear from Butler’s subsequent remarks that the “context” she has in mind is primarily racial, particularly in her claim that “both stories revolve on the impossibility of sexual freedom for black women” [178].) More recent studies have maintained this view of Larsen’s fiction, bearing such titles as “Queering Helga Crane: Black Nativism in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand” (2011) and “The New Negro Flâneuse in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand” (2008).1

I mention but a few of the many examples of the critical tendency to take for granted that Larsen was chiefly concerned with black women, but they suffice to reveal what strikes me as an “elephant in the room” in Larsen studies: that all of her heroines are racially ambiguous, if not explicitly biracial. In numerous ways, Larsen takes pains to show that something about her major women characters significantly sets them apart from the less ambiguously black women around them, whether it be that they can pass for white or that they have a white parent.2 If Larsen had intended to explore the experiences, psychology, or sexuality of black women specifically, it seems odd that she should have chosen to do so, in both novels she wrote, through such ambiguously raced women. Why did she not concentrate instead on a woman like Felise Freeland, a spirited…

Read or purchase the article here.

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