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Zendaya to Portray Real African-American Woman Who Passed as White

The story of Anita Hemmings is being adapted as a thriller.
By  · Published on November 15th, 2017

The story of Anita Hemmings is being adapted as a thriller.

Reese Witherspoon will produce an adaptation of Karin Tanabe’s historical novel “The Gilded Years,” which will be retitled A White Lie for the big screen. According to Deadline, the film will star Zendaya, who is also a producer, and the script will be written by Monica Beletsky (Fargo).

The novel tells the true story of Anita Hemmings, a light-skinned black woman who passed as a white student to graduate from Vassar College in 1897. It opens on Hemmings during her senior year, her true identity as a black woman completely hidden from her white classmates. However, her rich white roommate Lousia Taylor begins to suspect Hemmings and rats her out just a week before they are set to graduate. The adaptation will also feature Hemmings’s relationship with Andrew Jackson Love, an African American also passing as a white man at Harvard.

Deadline reports that the adaptation will be done as a psychological thriller. Beletsky’s involvement with Fargo will certainly help her in creating an exciting script, but the choice to go with a genre angle to tell Anita’s story is certainly a surprising approach. The novel feels like an easy foundation for an inspiring Oscar-winning drama, and it would be more typical for Hollywood to look at it that way.

The psychological thriller approach is one that won’t diminish the true fear and danger involved with the act of passing as a white person in the 19th century. African Americans had to cut ties with their black families and completely reject their black heritage in order to have the economic and educational opportunities that segregation would not allow. The possibility that their black identity could be outed would ruin their chances at a successful life. This angle to Anita’s story will bring refreshing relevancy to the subject, which may have been handled lightheartedly as a drama.

Another reason for this interesting take on the novel is because those who have been announced to be involved in the project are all women. Witherspoon has put emphasis on having women tell their own stories, from their unique perspective. In her Emmy acceptance speech for Big Little Lies, she said, “Bring women to the front of their own stories and make them the heroes of their own stories.” This will certainly help A White Lie bring a seriousness to Hemmings’s life that may not have been there if produced or written by men.

It be will be exciting to see Zendaya in a serious role after her little screen time in Spiderman: Homecoming and her upcoming role in The Greatest Showman, which comes out in December. Despite her Disney channel origins, Zendaya has had lasting fame and a great transition to Hollywood. She is active on social media when it comes to addressing civil rights, which fits well with the subject of A White Lie. 

No news yet on who will direct A White Lie or when it will be projected to begin production.

Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_