If you couldn’t get enough of Tessa Thompson as Detroit in Sorry To Bother You, fret not. Not only can you catch her as the voice of Lady in the forthcoming live-action version of Lady and the Tramp, but the doe-eyed siren will also appear alongside Ruth Negga in Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, Passing.
Literature nerds may have already guessed that the film is based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, which tells the story of two childhood friends whose fair complexions allow them to “pass” as white. As The Guardian notes, it’s the first major film of its kind in decades. It follows the heels of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Boots Riley’s breakout, which both explore racial privilege and the idea of switching one’s identity.
No word on when we can expect the film to hit theaters, but in the meantime, we’ve rounded up a few facts about Larsen’s novella in case you’re uninitiated.
1Passing Is Set in 1920s Harlem
During this time, The Great Migration had heightened existing tension surrounding the “color line” that had been drawn been white folks and Black folks. It chronicles the lives of two light-skinned Black women—Irene and Clare—whose lives are shaken when they reunite at a whites-only restaurant. “Clare longs to be among black folks again,” NPR explains. “And at the risk of her racially intolerant husband discovering her real identity, Clare secretly joins Irene and her husband at the best clubs and parties where the Harlem literati and intelligentsia meet.”
It’s Based on Larsen’s Own Mixed Race Heritage
Larsen was the daughter of Peter Walker, who is said to have been a mixed race Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies. He is also believed to have been a descendant of Henry or George Walker, who were two white men from Albany New York that settled in the Danish West Indies around 1840. Larsen’s mother, Marie Walker, was a Danish immigrant.
It Builds Off the “Tragic Mulatto” Trope, Which Dates Back to 19th Century American Literature
According to ThoughtCo, the tragic mulatto stock character “is an outdated and, many would argue, offensive term used to describe someone with one Black parent and one white parent. Its use is controversial today given that mulatto (mulato in Spanish) means small mule (a derivative of the Latin mūlus).”
They add that “the comparison of a biracial human being to the sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse was widely acceptable through even the mid-20th century but today is considered objectionable for obvious reasons.”
4 It’s One of the Only Two Novels Larsen Ever Wrote
Larsen, who was also a nurse and a librarian, only published one other book during her career. It was called Quicksand, and it told the story of the fictional Helga Crane, whose mixed-race identity poses challenges throughout many adventures. Larsen also penned a handful of short stories, including The Wrong Man, Freedom, and Sanctuary.
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