Director Rebecca Hall recently revealed that Passing, her directorial debut about two light-skinned Black women who “pass” as white was inspired by her family’s complex biracial history. 

The film’s personal resonance is even deeper with Nella Larsen, author of the 1929 novel of that name on which it is based. 

The adaptation, which won rave reviews at Sundance Film festival and will be released next month on Netflix, tells the story of two mixed race women living in 1920s New York – one of whom is ‘passing’ as white. 

Born to a white mother and biracial father, Nella was born to a widowed, white mother. Nella died at the age of two. The story was informed by the author’s life in a “painful netherworld” as the “resented stepchild” and the “darker-skinned child”. One critic said that it was influenced by the author’s own experiences. 

This experience ‘informed her fiction regarding women too dark to become white and too light to become black, women living in between black and white, culturally at home nowhere, and women who are too black to be white.

Nella, a former nurse was the first African American woman who graduated from library school and received the Guggenheim Fellowship to creative writing. Academics today hail her as a ‘queer figure in the movement for sexual exploration in her novels. 

Nella received critical acclaim after the book’s initial release. But she would only write two novels before a messy marriage and accusations of plagiarism drove her from the literary scene. 

Branded the ‘mystery woman’ of the Harlem Renaissance movement, it wasn’t until the late 20th century, when themes of racial and sexual identity became of greater interest to academics that a revival of interest in her work began. 

Nella Larsen is the author of Passing who wrote two books before leaving the literary world after a divorce and accusations of plagiarism. She is pictured in 1928, a year before writing her acclaimed novel Passing

Nella Larsen is the author Passing. She wrote two books before leaving the literary community after a divorce and accusations for plagiarism. She is shown in 1928, one year prior to the publication of her acclaimed novel Passing. 

Born in 1891 Chicago, in a poor district known as the The Levee, Nella was the daughter of Marie Hansen, a white Danish immigrant and Peter Walker, a mixed race man from a Danish colony in the Caribbean. 

After her father died at the age of two, Marie remarried white Danish immigrant Peter Larsen with whom she had another daughter, Anna Elizabeth. 

The only non-white member of her family, Nella moved to a mostly white area inhabited by German and Scandinavian immigrants.  

‘As a member of a white immigrant family, she had no entrée into the world of the blues or of the black church’, esteemed American novelist and critic Darryl Pinckney wrote for The Nation in 2006. 

Nella is pictured in 1928 receiving the Harmon Award for her first book Quicksand. The semi-autobiographical book follows educated mixed-race protagonist, Helga Crane who is the daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father who struggles to find her identity in the 1920s

Nella is shown in 1928, receiving the Harmon Award for Quicksand. The semi-autobiographical book follows educated mixed-race protagonist, Helga Crane who is the daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father who struggles to find her identity in the 1920s

‘She couldn’t be white like her mother or sister, nor could she ever be black the way Langston Hughes or his characters were black. Hers was a netherworld that was unrecognisable historically, and too painful to dig up.  

In 1907, Nella moved to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University, a historically black institution founded six months after the end of the Civil War in 1865. 

After a year in Nashville, Nella travelled to Denmark where she spent three years living with relatives and attending courses from the University of Copenhagen.   

After returning to the US, she settled down in New York. She graduated from Lincoln Hospital’s nursing program before moving to Alabama to further her education. 

Nella married Dr. Elmer Samuel Imes in May 1919. He was the second African American to receive a Ph.D. and the first person in the 20th Century to become the chairman of Fisk University’s Physics Department.

The couple moved from New Jersey to Harlem, where they quickly became part of the professional and cultural society known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ – who sparked a revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature and politics in 1920s and 1930s.

Nella moved to Harlem with her husband in 1919 and quickly became part of the professional and cultural society known as the 'Harlem Renaissance'

Nella, who moved to Harlem in 1919 with her husband, quickly became a part of the cultural and professional society known as the “Harlem Renaissance”.

They had many friends, including artists and intellectuals like Langston Hughes, an American poet; and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (an American sociolog and civil rights activist).  

It is believed that her friendship with Carl Van Vechten (a writer and photographer who was a patron for the Harlem Renaissance), brought her to social prominence. 

The pair were close friends, with Carl encouraging Nella to write further about black culture and Nella dedicating Passing to Carl and his wife while basing the character of Mr. Wentworth on the photographer.  

Larsen worked as a librarian in New York Public Library between 1922 and 1926. Her first novel, Quicksand was published in 1928. 

Netflix’s eagerly awaited new movie, How Passing, will be adapt for the small screen   

Netflix’s adaptation of The Book will focus on the f.Clare and Irene, two light-skinned Black women who ‘pass’ – both intentionally and unintentionally — as white in 1920s New York.  

The chance encounter at Harlem Renaissance’s white-only hotel led to the pair reuniting. It is Irene’s first time at passing, while Clare did it for her entire adult life. Clare even married an ignorant white racist to learn more about his wife’s history. 

Ruth Negga as Clare in Netflix's adaptation of Passing

Ruth Negga plays Clare in Netflix’s adaptation Passing 

It will feature Tessa Thompson playing Irene and Ruth Negga playing Clare. 

Other cast members include: Alexander Skarsgård as Clare’s husband John; André Holland as Irene’s husband Brian and Bill Camp as Hugh Wentworth. 

Rebecca Hall directed the film adaptation and it received rave reviews after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Rights to the production were purchased by Netflix  in February in a in a $15m deal 

The film will be available worldwide on the streaming service starting November 10th.

The semi-autobiographical book follows educated mixed-race protagonist, Helga Crane who is the daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father who struggles to find her identity in the 1920s. 

The book received critical acclaim the 1928 Harmon prize, which awarded accolades to African-American artists. The novel was not financially successful. 

In 1929, Passing was published following the reunion of two childhood friends – Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield – whose lives have gone in dramatically different directions. 

Despite being raised together, one of them is ‘passing’ for white, and lives in Manhattan with her wealthy white husband. The other lives in Harlem, with her black doctor husband.  

Pinckney claims that her childhood had influenced the book: ‘Larsen’s upbringing as the resented stepchild, the darker-skinned daughter whose existence perhaps burdened her otherwise loving mother would inform her fiction about women too dark to be white and too light to be black, women living between black and white, and culturally at home nowhere’, he wrote. 

Although the novel isn’t based on a true story it has been praised by critics for drawing on real life experiences, including a high-profile divorce case in the 1920s. 

In 1924, Rhinelander v. Rhinelander played out the divorce of American socialite, a member of the wealthy Rhinelander family Leonard ‘Kip’ Rhinelander and Alice Jones, a biracial working class woman. 

Leonard sued his wife to annul the marriage on the grounds that she had hidden her heritage and deliberately deceived Leonard into believing she was white. 

Similar to the novel, Clare marries John Bellew (a wealthy white man) who is unaware of her true race.  

Octavio R. González, an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Wellesley College and an expert on the Harlem Renaissance, suggested that the book features themes of sexuality, hailing Nella one of the ‘queer figures’ of the movement.  

In an interview with Time magazine, González described Passing as a novel that exhibits ‘same-sex desire between the two female protagonists’. 

Nella finished her second novel and had no other projects. She then returned to work full-time as a librarian. In 1930, she published a short story called ‘Sanctuary.’ 

The author was then accused of plagiarising Sheila Kaye Smith’s work.  

Kaye-Smith’s Mrs. Adis follows a poor woman who hides a young stranger who begs her for protection after being caught poaching on the nearby estate and accidentally killed a local gamekeeper.  

After learning that her son was a childhood friend, she takes him in and protects his life, even though it is revealed that he was the one who killed her child.  

In Larsen’s Sanctuary, a poor black woman helps a black thief who accidentally killed a man while attempting to steal tires from a factory and refuses to give him up, even after discovering he killed her son.    

At the time of her death in 1964 aged 72, Nella's novels were regarded as 'trivial, misguided and poorly written'

Nella was 72 years old when she died. Her novels were regarded as ‘trivial misguided and poorly-written’ at the time.

Nella denied plagiarising the works, claiming she had heard the story through friends many years ago, and while her editors eventually exonerated her of wrongdoing – she was never published again.  

Three years later, she and her husband divorced after years of strain on their marriage – with some academics claiming Elmer had an affair in the early 1920s.  

Publishers rejected Nella’s novel, which was about a love-triangle using white characters, soon after their divorce. Nella then resigned from Harlem Renaissance friends like Van Vechten.

After their divorce in 1933, Nella lived on generous alimony payments until Elmer’s death in 1941 when she returned to work as hospital administrator in New York and lived in a small apartment on Second Avenue.

Nella’s novels were considered ‘trivial and misguided’ at the time of her death, in 1964, at 72. She was childless and estranged from her half sister who denied knowing she existed after inheriting the $35,000 of savings she left her behind.    

Mary Helen Washington published in 1980 an article in Ms Magazine describing the author as the “mystery woman” of Harlem Renaissance. She called her works “for the most part unknown and unread by both black critics and white counterparts”.  

In George Hutchinson’s 2006 book, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Colour Line, he writes: Larsen herself no doubt felt like a shadow through much of her life. She never felt at home in the kind of place she was accustomed to.

‘Nella Larsen was not a writer of significant novels or a founder of an institution or a leader in a movement. 

“She seemed to have had little interest leaving a legacy. She lived a life she shouldn’t have, and one many seem to believe she could not have.  

How Rebecca Hall’s black family history inspired new film Passing: Actor reveals how her and grandfather who were both biracial ‘passed’ themselves off as white

Director Rebecca Hall previously spoke out about how her family’s complex biracial history inspired Passing, her directorial debut. It is about two light-skinned Black women who “pass” as white. 

Hall, 39, is the child of Sir Peter Hall, a white British director, and Maria Ewing, 71 (detroit-born opera singer), whose mother was Dutch and her father was African American and possibly Sioux Native American.

Like the characters in Passing Hall’s maternal grandfather Norman Isaac Ewing, Hall spent his entire life ‘passing’ as an African-American man and raised his children as white, including Maria.

Rebecca Hall has revealed how her family's own biracial history inspired her directorial debut, Passing, about two light-skinned Black women who 'pass' as white. Pictured, Rebecca in 2010 with her mother, opera singer Maria Ewing, whose mother was white Dutch and father was of African American, and possibly Sioux Native American and white European descent

Rebecca Hall revealed the inspiration for her directorial debut, Passing. It is about two light-skinned Black women who “pass” as white. Pictured: Rebecca Hall with Maria Ewing (opera singer), her mother who was white Dutch and her father of African American and possibly Sioux Native American descent.

Rebecca described her grandfather's 'passing' as something that was 'known and not known'. Adapting Passing for the screen was a way of processing her own complicated family history. Pictured, Rebecca as a baby with her mother Maria and father, director Sir Peter Hall

Rebecca described her grandfather’s passing as something that was both known and unknown. Passing was Rebecca’s way of processing her complicated family history. Pictured: Rebecca as a baby, with her mother Maria, and her father, Sir Peter Hall 

“He was almost certainly African American. I say he passed for white; there was no language for that within even my family… it was it was mysterious even for [my mother]Hall stated that it was difficult for her to do so in an interview with Screen Daily. 

“I continued to dig deeper and it became evident that he was white passing. It was also likely that his parents were both white passing. I began to think about the legacy of family members passing on.  

Norman Isaac Ewing was a child of John William Ewing, Hattie Norman and was born circa 1892-1894. This term, which is now obsolete, refers to a child who was born to a Black person or a white person.

Norman’s race is listed on the 1910 U.S. Census as’mulatto. He describes himself as a ‘Native American Indian” in 1920.

Norman married Hermina Maria, who was born in Amsterdam in 1938, Ontario, Canada. The couple settled in the USA and had four daughters, Norma Koleta (Carol Pankratz), Frances Ewing, and Maria Ewing.

Maria was only 14 when Norman died, Maria was just 13 years old, and Hermina was 88 when Hermina died.

Maria graduated from Finney High School Detroit in 1968. Eight years later, she made her professional debut in a Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

She met Sir Peter in 1979 at Glyndebourne. He directed her as Carmen, as well as Salome. His Dance Of The Seven Veils made her completely naked on stage and she fell in love with him, despite the fact that he was married to Jacky.

Jacky and he divorced in 1981. In 1982, he married Maria. Rebecca was born that year.

Hall explained that Passing was recommended to her by a friend around 10 years ago when Hall was contemplating her own racial identity and the privileges she received as a white-presenting individual.

“I began to think about the American dream through racial passing. It is representative of self-made people who can turn themselves into other people. But, it is also representative of the American dream’s central lie, which is that there is no limit to what you can do. [participate]She said to the LA Times that if your skin is a certain shade, it’s okay.

“And as I began to think more about that, it was clear that I wanted to know more and to see where I stand in relation to it.