Most of this essay concerns the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, while remarks on the 1934 version will be found only at the end. Regarding the 1959 version, for some people this movie says that everyone should be who he or she is and not pretend to be something else. For other people, this movie says that everyone should know his or her place and stay in it. It all depends on whether one embraces the message of the movie or is repelled by it.
Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a widow with a daughter, Susie (played by Sandra Dee when Susie becomes a teenager), wants to be an actress. One day at the beach, she meets Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), who appears to be a black woman taking care of a little white girl, Sarah Jane (played by Susan Kohner when Sarah Jane becomes a teenager), but who turns out to be “colored” (the term used in the film). Lora ends up hiring Annie as a maid, and they all live together from then on.
While at the beach, Lora also meets Steve Archer (John Gavin), with whom she forms a romantic attachment. The movie implies that Lora should have given up her aspirations to be an actress and married Steve, staying at home to be a good wife and mother. And it implies that Sarah Jane should have accepted the fact that she was colored, and not try to pass for white. Because they prefer imitation over authenticity, they both forgo happiness, until the end, when Lora agrees to give up her career and get married, and when Sarah Jane openly declares that Annie was her mother at her funeral.
Strangely enough, our twenty-first century perspective is likely to make some people more supportive of Lora but less supportive of Sarah Jane. As for Lora, we now believe women are perfectly in their rights to want a career. Some women prefer to be homemakers, allowing themselves to be completely dependent on their husbands financially, and we wish them luck in their choice. But women who want a career of their own have every right to pursue one, and we regard any man who would object as patriarchal. After all, Steve could have agreed to let Lora continue to pursue her career as an actress after they got married, but that was obviously out of the question as far as he was concerned. He is resentful of the way she puts her own ambition before his love, because he thinks his love for her should have been the overwhelming consideration. In those days, if a man truly loved a woman, she was wrong not to accept his proposal of marriage, for it was thought that she would never again have a chance for happiness. Furthermore, we now believe a woman is better off if she is financially independent, in case the marriage goes bad. But in the 1950s, a woman was supposed to give herself to a man unconditionally, and not be thinking about “What if?” As a result, we are more likely today to think Steve was wrong-headed, and to be a little disappointed at the end when Lora says she is going to give up her career and marry him.
As for Sarah Jane, some people may be less supportive about her desire to pass for white, because today being an African American is not supposed to be something bad, something to be ashamed of. A lot of people would say she should have been proud of her African heritage. Well, that’s a nice attitude to have in the twenty-first century, but considering the prejudice against African Americans in the 1950s, not to mention the laws requiring segregation, trying to escape from such oppressive conditions seems perfectly reasonable. I would have tried to pass for white had I been in her situation. Actually, Sarah Jane’s problem may not be so much that she tries to pass for white as that she insists that she is white.
In fact, whereas Steve’s attitude toward Lora’s ambition makes us uneasy today, a lot of people feel equally uneasy about Annie. In the introductory scene at Coney Island, Annie refers to how Sarah Jane’s light skin bedeviled her where they used to live (probably the South), and so they moved. She sees how Sarah Jane hates the black doll that Susie tries to give her. And when they are discussing what color Jesus is, Sarah Jane says, “Jesus is like me. He’s white.” In other words, Annie knows how Sarah Jane feels. And yet, she shows up at her school with an umbrella and galoshes without the slightest thought that she might embarrass Sarah Jane, who probably would have been embarrassed by her mother’s appearance with rain gear even if race were not a consideration. We might give Annie a pass on that, but later, when Sarah Jane tries to make her own way performing in a night club, Annie shows up and ruins that for her daughter too. The way Annie disapproves of the night club, you would think it was a den of iniquity and that Sarah Jane was doing a striptease, but she is reasonably attired and merely singing and dancing in a sexy but respectable way. Annie should have warned Sarah Jane of the dangers of trying pass for white (“What if you have a baby and it comes out black?”), but then supported her daughter whatever her decision was.
Steve and Annie both try to impose their values on someone else. The movie seems to say that they are right to do so, and there are those who agree with them, but many would say they should have let others live their lives as they wanted to.
I will end this with a few remarks concerning the original version of this movie, made in 1934. The Sarah Jane character, whose name is Peola in this version, played by Fredi Washington, does not find work in a night club, but rather as a receptionist in a respectable hotel. As a result, whereas the 1959 version tries to justify Annie’s interference with Sarah Jane’s employment in a nightclub on grounds of indecency, in the 1934 version, Peola’s mother Delilah, played by Louise Beavers, objects to her daughter’s attempt to find a new life for herself passing for white because her doing so is hurtful. There is much melodrama about how Peola’s actions hurt her mother, with almost no consideration for how much Peola suffers from her situation. It is all quite one-sided.
Furthermore, in the 1959 version, Sarah Jane gets herself a white boyfriend, played by Troy Donahue, who becomes angry when he finds out that she is a Negro and beats her. There is no corresponding scene in the 1934 version. In other words, the 1959 version tries to show that passing for white is imprudent, whereas the 1934 version has the attitude that passing for white is immoral.