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.
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.
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.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.