Imitation of Life (1959) dir. Douglas Sirk

Imitation of Life could almost be a parody of everything Americans find embarrassing about our social attitudes in the 1950’s. The woman who chooses a career over marriage finds herself empty and her family falling apart. The teenage girl listening to records finds herself seduced into a life of sin. And, black people are perfectly content to wait on their generous white masters employers.

Though raised practically as sisters, the film’s white teen (left) and black teen (right) have very different hobbies.

A quick plot summary — aspiring actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) lives alone with her daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee). Lora hires Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) as her live-in maid, and Annie brings along her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Lora ends up having great success and takes care of both girls and of Annie financially. Sarah Jane passes for white, but her guises are constantly frustrated when her dark-skinned mother shows up.

Imitation of Life is a remake of a 1934 film, based on a 1933 novel. I watched the 1934 film in the class African Americans in Film taught by Carmen Coustaut when I was an undergrad at the University of Arkansas. At the time, I imagined we watched the ’34 version instead of the better-known ’59 because the ’59 was somehow more progressive and less suitable to our examination of stereotypes.

I was wrong.

Early on the film, there is a scene where the two girls play with dolls. There is a white doll and a black doll. Susie instinctively gives the black doll to Sarah Jane, but Sarah Jane tosses it to the ground and demands the white doll. I read this as a nod to Brown v. Board of Education, decided 4 years before the film was released. Perhaps this was the subversion one online critic had written about.

But this hope was unfounded. As in the 1934 film, maid Annie seems to have no desires, hopes of dreams outside of taking care of Lora. She fits the “mammy” stereotype to a T. She is desexualized and depersonalized. She is scolding but good-natured and cares for the white woman and her daughter in a sweet, tender way.

Annie is sick, but it’s Lora getting the footrub. “It’s the best role since Scarlett O’Hara!” Lora exclaims at one point in the film

And, as in the 1934 film, no one speaks out against racism. When Sarah Jane is made to feel  inferior at school or is beaten by her boyfriend, no one condemns the racists — instead, they talk about how awful it is that Sarah Jane tells white folks she is white.

And when Sarah Jane does pass, she ends up working at a burlesque show. Since she is ‘really black,’ she apparently cannot succeed at ‘white’ jobs. The problem, we’re told, isn’t that whites are racist against blacks, but that blacks really can’t be like whites. Instead, they should embrace their blackness and be like the well-cared-for, saintly Annie.

The especially ugly part is the way director Douglas Sirk anticipates these criticisms and counters them. When Sarah Jane complains about the way she is treated, he plays dark, dramatic music.

This is the tell that makes the entire movie more insidious. It isn’t the type of oblivious or casual racism that has always pervaded Hollywood, and continues to infect film production today. The director recognizes the stereotypes he’s including, has heard criticism of them, and is doubling-down. The villain in the film isn’t the racists, but the blacks who agitate.

This wasn’t an uncommon feeling in America in 1959. The post-reconstruction peace between the North and South depended on a mutual agreement to keep African Americans “in their place.” Read an excerpt from Joe Franklin’s book on silent films, published the same year Imitation of Life was released. He’s writing about D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, which climaxes with the KKK saving white women from being raped by recently-freed blacks.

“The film’s alleged anti-Negro bias has provoked controversy ever since the film’s release, and further comment here would certainly solve nothing… Griffith certainly did not set out to make a biased film, and indeed most of the incessant storm that has continued ever since has been whipped up and sustained not by Negro interests but by political interests–ironically, the same sort of circumstance which caused the unrest in the South in the first place!”

After Sarah Jane’s parody, Lora convinces her to apologize by pointing out that she has always been nice to her. She’s making explicit the implicit defense of Hollywood racism for the past century — this movie can’t be racist, because the white protagonist patronizingly plays savior to is nice to her loyal grateful black servant friend.

Three Oscar-nominated roles for African American actresses.
Three Oscar-nominated roles for African American actresses.

Although some of the particular parts of the film have been left behind in the 1950’s, the basic template has not been. It seems that at every step of the way, Hollywood trips over itself trying to prove it’s not racist while simultaneously entrenching racism and blaming the people who point that fact out.

Adam Call Roberts

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  1. Bev Kliewer August 27, 2018

    I’m Canadian and white. My parents were immigrants from eastern Europe but I love Canadians in a country that does not respect aboriginal indigenous people. My mother watched imitation of life seven times when she was pregnant with me. I watched it numerous times growing up. Years ago I was a high school teacher and I showed it to my students. Imitation of life is the antithesis of a good life. Your insights were good. Thank you I think it’s time for a new version of this movie but Obviously tackling the issues.

  2. Dominic Gallagher August 28, 2018

    Very interesting article, who was it by? I came here because Imitation of Life was extensively referenced in Operation Finale, a dilm which I felt had the same insiduous. The lead couple in the end are not united, it is Eichmann smirking in the dock because in a certain sense he knows he has won.

    1. Adam Call Roberts August 29, 2018

      Thanks! I wrote it, and I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. I haven't seen Operation Finale -- I just looked it up and it looks interesting. I'll have to check it out. I read that director Chris Weitz's mother, Susan Kohner, played Sarah Jane in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life.

  3. J. Manny March 27, 2020

    What I find interesting is how Lora was surprised that Annie had all these friends, as if Lora thought Annie's life only revolved around her. (I do think Annie was a bit too saintly and servile to Lora, but I suppose she was made "all good" for the viewer to sympathize with). I also wish the boy who beat up Sarah Jane was later beaten up himself :-(

  4. Antajuan Grady September 5, 2022

    Great article! Your right; the film tries to make Sarah Jane a villian but I've always saw her as a victim. Sure, it's horrible how she treats her mother in the film BUT you have to think about being a person who could PASS AS WHITE in 1959 in the U.S. You don't look Black and people don't realize your such until they realize who your mother is so you basically beat the 'System' based off your looks. That's not her fault she fools racist Whites into thinking she's one of them! Another thing about the 1934 and 1959 versions---why do both have to leave the father out? If you think about they cast Black women who played the mother who were dark-skinned and were mostly black but that's inaccurate if Sarah Jane is passing as White! There's NO way she'd pass as White if her mother is dark-skinned and her father also is black because in both versions her father is described as 'light-skinned, almost White'. In reality, if she's so White-looking even White people can't tell her ancestry, her father would HAVE TO BE White if her mother is her mother portrayed in the films. They were excellent in their roles but I'm saying they could've at least made the father White OR made the mother biracial because even people who are biracial like Halle Berry/Obama don't pass as White. People who almost pass for White like Mariah Carey are, in reality, more than just 50% White; MC is probably 75-80% White; her 'black' father is definitely part White already! Anyhow, I think people knew this BUT they didn't want to or couldn't talk about interracial relationships and kids back then. That's the only reason I can see they didn't dive into the question of how can she be Black but pass for White. The actors, though, were brilliant and I can't really see anyone playing those roles but in reality, the looks of the actors would have to be more accurate!

  5. Tilly March 20, 2023

    I absolutely hated the 50's remake, for several reasons, but it lacked convincing emotion and felt cheesey and overdramatized (mind you anything with Turner seems to go that way). It also irritated me to no end that Sarah Jane was bi racial Spanish and Caucasian descent, as if any old bi racial person can fill the role, that's inherently racist. I have a love-hate relationship with the original 30's film, but much of my love goes to Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington. For what dialogue they were given they intimate volumes more meaning through their actions. It's unfortunate that the racial struggles Peola faces as a white presenting child play second fiddle to the romantic sub plot of Ms Pullman and Stephen. I hated that Delilah lived to serve white people and that she had no desire for her independence. She lives without romance, and is little more than a mammy character, she was typecast as such in the majority of her roles. It's sad because of all the little glimpses I've seen of Beavers I dream of what more she could have aspired to if she hadn't been held back. Washington was a fascinating actress, too, and she advocated for better race relations and more diversity in film roles for actors of colour. If anyone sees the 60's remake without giving the original any consideration, well it's a damn shame is what it is.