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).

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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

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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Bottles, Bubbles, and Blood: Jean Toomer and the Limits of Racial Epidermalism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-09-08 01:23Z by Steven

Bottles, Bubbles, and Blood: Jean Toomer and the Limits of Racial Epidermalism

Volume 22, Number 2, April 2015
pages 279-302
DOI: 10.1353/mod.2015.0041

Catherine Keyser, Associate Professor of English Language and Literature
University of South Carolina

In an unpublished 1935 memoir, Jean Toomer reminisces about his job as a soda jerk in high school and exults in his hard-won expertise:

I got my white coat. Under my friends [sic] guidance I learned to work the fountain, draw sodas, pile sundaes, brew special concoctions. Of course, I had imprinted upon me indelibly what my fellow-men consider tasty thirst-quenching drinks. … I was a serious youth at first, in every way an eager, earnest student of the job. … I soon became familiar with the store’s stock, the patent medicines, the chemicals in jars. Sime [sic] times I watched the doctor compound prescriptions and I had a feeling of fascination and mystery as if there were some magic about this and I were in—not the prosaic back of a modern drug store but in the work shop of an alchemist.

Toomer’s verbs animate the process of intermixture and especially his active role in that process: “work,” “draw,” “pile,” “brew.” While popular taste renders the soda jerk passive, even textual (“I had imprinted upon me indelibly”), the model of the doctor compounding prescriptions promises active and expert authorship. In this combination, we can see an alter ego for the literary modernist, reformulating the materials of popular culture with expertise. The audience for the work is meant to imbibe its results, to incorporate the concoction in the body, and thus to experience the senses anew. The pharmacist models not only form (as formula) and bricolage (as compounds), but also the radical transformation of the consumer of this “magic.” This alchemical metaphor for modernist practice suits Toomer’s approach to race as well as his approach to art. Mark Whalan observes that Toomer uses technological metaphors in his masterwork Cane in order to imagine a “dynamic process” of racial transformation: “At the centre of this exists the figure of the artist, transforming through a process of mechanical efficiency material forms which degrade or oppress into forms which offer liberation and agency.”

The outside world encroaches on this idyllic magician’s workshop. Toomer’s longed-for imaginative transformation of racial categorization was not so easily performed in the segregated spaces of the Jim Crow era, and the anecdote in his memoir bears this out. His grandmother disapproves of his ambition to work at a soda fountain: “I could not bring myself to ask my grandmother. I could hear her exclaim, ‘My grandson a soda boy!’” Her hesitation (and his) is telling. A notoriously segregated city, Washington, D.C., had an anti-discrimination law on the books from 1872 stating that “keepers of ice-cream saloons or places where soda-water is kept for sale” would be fined for “refusing to sell or wait upon any respectable, well-behaved person, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but in practice, this statute was ignored. Is this a soda fountain for white patrons, where a black teenager could work behind the counter but not sit in front of it? Or is this a soda fountain for black patrons, a safe but lower-class space? It is not a surprise that Toomer, frustrated at what he elsewhere calls “color labels,” fails to mention the race of his friends, colleagues, or patrons in the soda fountain, but the fact that he does not do so draws attention to the racial politics that he tries to overlook. Soda fountains were a common symbol of segregation and racial tension. In 1918, James Weldon Johnson wrote that “the denial of the privilege of drinking ice cream soda in certain places on account of race or color is a phase of the denial of full citizenship and common democracy.” For many Harlem Renaissance writers, the soda fountain represented social barriers rather than chemical recombinations. In George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), his newly white protagonist learns about a local Klan rally at a soda fountain. In The Big Sea (1940), Langston Hughes recalls stopping in St. Louis during a train trip in 1918 and being turned away from “the soda fountain where cool drinks were being served” because he was “colored.” Hughes sardonically concludes the anecdote: “I knew I was home in…

Read or purchase the article here.

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