Imitation of Life Directed by Douglas Sirk

Imitation of Life Directed by Douglas Sirk
By Ron Falzone

One of the by-products of our long road to confront our racial history is the question, “What do we do with the artifacts of our past?”  From century-old minstrel shows and advertising slogans like “Dis sho’ am good!” to the recent flaps over Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, we seem to be in a constant state of recognizing that the commodification of African Americans did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. At the same time, these artifacts explain how we were asked to see the world, what we thought, and how we treated each other.  If we cannot face this past then how can we look to the future?

Among the myriad other issues, addressing race creates a minefield for teachers.  Do we condemn these artifacts or do we contextualize them?  Or, the more probable route nowadays, do we condemn then contextualize?  I tap dance across this “no man’s land” every time I teach a class.  After all, the American attitudes toward race infected movies right from the beginning.  In terms of the classroom, it is no longer feasible to discuss Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation on the level of its contributions to the art and aesthetics of film.  It can only be viewed as a scurrilous race-baiting artifact of white supremacy, a social history lesson instead of a film history one.

Whether successful or not, I always try to replace “instead of” with “and.”  Movies are key artifacts of who we were and therefore understanding them within the context of their time allows us to examine how we got to be who we are today.  No one said that this backward glance has to be pleasant.

The most difficult aspect of dealing with movies about race is separating the ones that assume the “place” of black people in America from those whose attitudes may be antiquated by today’s standards but nonetheless were struggling to examine racism.  There was a time when the musical Showboat was an extraordinarily courageous racial statement.  Now, few theaters would dare consider a production of it and the movie versions are rarely seen.  The simple truth is that the path to enlightenment is long and filled with potholes.  Is it necessary, though, to view our present place on this path as the only one of value?  If this is true then isn’t it also true that generations farther down this path will have license to condemn us for our backward attitudes?

Somewhere between Showboat and the present day lies Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (Amazon Link to MovieTrailer).  Looked at through the prism of the present day, it’s attitudes can at times seem old fashioned.  Looked at as a mirror of the 1950’s, it is an extraordinary attack on prejudice, particularly the biases of the well-meaning whites who assume their own enlightenment.  This was an area of prejudice the movies had never addressed before and would not so effectively do again until Jordan Peele’s Get Out nearly 60 years later.

Lora (Lana Turner) meets Annie (Juanita Moore) when Lora is scouring the beach for her missing daughter Susie.  This sets up their relationship:  Lora will be the white lady who needs help and Annie will be the faithful black friend who is there to solve problems and offer support.  As Lora rises from obscurity to Broadway star, she takes Annie along as her servant.  This allows Lora to pat herself on the back for being open and having a black friend while never really engaging with Annie beyond her servitude.

And Annie is very much in need of Lora’s support.  Her daughter, Sarah Jane, hates her mother for being black and herself for carrying that “stain.”  As Annie’s difficulties deepen, Lora remains aloof, assuming her problems with her career and daughter are somehow more real or important than her friend’s.  The power dynamics in the relationship between Lora and Annie are made painfully clear when Lora expresses surprise that Annie has many church friends.  In a film of big emotions and bigger heartbreaks, Annie’s simple reply of “You never asked” hits harder than most other BIG statements from the more pretentious race-related films of the same period.

Sirk was known for his overheated melodramas, but more particularly for the ways in which he used dramatic overstatement to explore the cracks and fissures in America’s supposedly complacent 1950’s.  The most potent expression here is the beating Sarah Jane takes from her white boyfriend (Troy Donahue) when he discovers that she is black.  The blaring music with each strike heightens the melodrama, but Sirk twists our feelings by forcing us to recognize that the ugly expression of the white boy is not just about his prejudice, but also because he has been lied to by someone he loves.  We can condemn him, but we also have to face the fact that his response has conflicting layers.

Imitation of Life is a remake of a well-loved and respected earlier film version of the Fannie Hurst bestseller from director John M. Stahl.  The differences between the two films is an object lesson in the shifting attitudes of their respective times.  In the first version, Beatrice/Lora meets Delilah/Annie at a similar destitute moment.  Delilah creates a pancake mix that Beatrice then sells and turns into a major business.  Within the Hollywood morality of the time, Delilah is so grateful that she continues as Beatrice’s maid despite now having her share of the business.  In the later version, no such advantage is taken of Annie’s abilities.  She signs on as Lora’s maid because she needs stability for her daughter and because it is (still) one of the only avenues open to her.  Her decision is one of necessity whereas Delilah’s is one of “knowing her place.”

Unlike its predecessor, Sirk’s Imitation of Life deliberately constructs the idea that blacks and whites live in parallel universes.  Annie has a rich life beyond Lora’s world, a fact that Lora is too blind to see and Sarah Jane is too selfish to accept.  In Stahl’s version, we know nothing of Delilah’s world outside of Beatrice’s largesse.  When she does venture out it is not to socialize with other black women, it is to be the object of white people’s derision. 

There are other ways in which Sirk’s film is reflective of its time, and ironically in ways that step on the toes of his message.  Universal was behind the project but balked at the idea of having a black or biracial woman play the adult Sarah Jane.  The role went to white actress Susan Kohner who plays it in a high-pitched Sirkian key that is completely appropriate to the scale of the film.  Despite very good work, though, one can’t help but see her casting as a compromise choice.

But then isn’t this part of the point?  To this day, Hollywood still feels the need to compromise any time that race comes into the picture.  Sadly, like all historical and social compromises, sooner or later one generation will have to struggle to explain why to the next.