There is perhaps no better example of misguided melodrama than 1934/1959's Imitation of Life, and according to our cinematic scholar, no more culturally defining or disturbing character than its light-skinned, half-breed heroine.
Am I not white? Isn't that a white girl?
That line never reached the state of immortality of "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn", or "There's no place like home". Even film fanatics have trouble recalling that it's from Imitation of Life, the "women's picture" potboiler first made in 1934 and then definitively lensed in 1959 by Douglas Sirk. Despite the film's tearjerker surety and "sisterhood is powerful" theme, its casual racism poisons the plot.
Rare is the modern viewer who can measure this hopelessly dated film's merit without being disgusted or, less sensitively, amused by its unintentional kitsch. That's a shame, because tucked inside the narrative is one of the most prescient characters in classic film: the light-skinned Peola (as she's named in the original), or Sarah Jane (as Sirk re-christens her). She is a "tragic mulatto" whose defiance of the race-based strictures of her time distinguishes her as advanced beyond the film's other inhabitants.
The plot, canonized in the 1934 original, is simple enough: Bea (Claudette Colbert) is the widow of a maple syrup magnate who's struggling to raise her daughter and keep the business solvent. One harried morning, she's interrupted by Delilah (Louise Beavers) an African-American woman seeking employment as a domestic. Bea hadn't advertised for one, but Delilah seizes on the chaos in the struggling woman's home to impress on what a good housekeeper she is.
All she wants is room and board ("I'd be willing to work for almost nothing . . . I's very light at the table, honest" says Beavers, who in reality had to force herself to overeat to retain the heft necessary for the "mammy" roles that were her mainstay). She just needs a home for herself and her daughter Peola, a brunette sylph who slides in from behind her mammoth momma. "Her pappy was a very, very light colored man," says Delilah (leaving us to imply from as broad a hint as a Hays code film can convey that the girl may be half-white.). Bea accepts, and the four women make a home together.
The result is a Depression-era fantasy of female entrepreneurship where the combination of good ideas, shrewd business acumen, and a devoted servant like Delilah (a woman so selfless she has only three desires: to serve Bea, to raise her daughter, and to have a funeral grand enough to keep the colored folks talking) guarantees these women and their daughters will never go hungry again. It's an empowered, glitzy fairy tale that seems ready made to join the permanent ranks of sobfests like Terms of Endearment or Dirty Dancing for years of girls-night-out appreciation. But its startling, unconscious racism renders it unfit for modern audiences unwilling to forgive its ignorance.
The first inkling that something is amiss occurs when Peola runs home crying because Bea's daughter slandered her by calling her "black". Bea doesn't take the moment to explain that black is beautiful but instead demands, right in front of the much darker Delilah, "Jessie, how could you say such a mean, cruel thing to Peola?" Delilah's advice, spoken from inside the bonds of institutional racism, is equally devoted to the status quo. "You gotta learn to take it," she comforts her daughter. After all, this is a character so entrenched in the fantasy of joyful "darkie" servitude that when Bea offers Delilah a share in the corporation founded on her recipe, Delilah's first response is a panicked "You going to send me away, Miz Bea? Oh honeychile, please don't send me away. How'm I going to take care of you and Miss Jessie if I ain't here?"
Peola (played, in a rare, refreshing burst of casting honesty from a major studio, by the very light-skinned African American actress Fredi Washington) is the only character who recognizes the monstrosity of the situation. Stuck among her atavistic family, she's the one who moans to the mirror that if she looks white, she should be treated to every opportunity a white girl should have. If it means denying to her candy store boss that this Negro woman is her mother, so be it broken hearts be damned.
Washington (who, unlike Peola, was unashamed of her heritage and devoted her later years to civil rights work) was, quite frankly, a very odd beauty, her broad-chinned, mask-like face set with feline eyes and great slashes of cheekbone. With a sashay halfway between a jungle cat and linebacker and her throaty, stage-cultured voice twinged with masculine inflection, it's as easy to believe she's as halfway between male and female (like the biracial Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game) as she is between black and white. This ambiguous, undefined quality makes Washington a perfect casting choice for the mutable Peola. Restlessly pacing the room in her satin gown and marcelled hair, she calls to mind a glamorous embryo waiting to evolve.
When Douglas Sirk chose to revisit this material, it was to be his final film made in the United States. Sirk had fled an increasingly fascist Germany two decades before and found asylum in Hollywood directing seething Technicolor spectacles like Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Written on the Wind (1956). His films, full of high drama and tormented women (not to mention a mise-en-scene full of silky fabrics, sparkly jewels, cursive script, and the spray of flowers) were more "feminine" than other equally pulpy or spectacle-driven efforts of "macho" directors like Samuel Fuller or John Ford. By the '70s, he was publicly adored by a motley fan club of contemporaries including Jean-Luc Godard, John Waters, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He had, by then, left his tenure in Tinsel Town permanently behind.
Sirk's fatal dissatisfaction with his adopted country is threaded all throughout his 1959 version of Imitation of Life. Its critique of American ambition, racism, sexism, and avarice creeps beneath its sumptuous surface. This time around, the Caucasian lead Lora (Lana Turner) isn't a mogul but an aspiring actress who neglects her family and sometime boyfriend Steve (John Gavin) in order to claw her way through the exploitation-laden world of show business. And this time around we must believe that her maid, Annie's daughter Sarah Jane (played by Mexican and Austro-Hungarian actress Sarah Kohner, and resembling Ava Gardner's pudgy younger sister) is our tragic mulatto heroine.
Even though Sarah Jane is the most self-loathing character, she's still the most progressive; foreshadowing a future where the box checked on the census form is a self-defining matter. A restless teenager who refuses to socialize with the respectable Negro boys from church because "they bore me", she's the only one who dares to make a mess in Lora's magazine-perfect house, scattering her records on the floor as she shimmies around them in dangerous, vinyl-cracking stiletto heels. We cheer her sass and sarcasm when she declares to Lora's self-important guests that she's learned to balance a serving tray on her head "from mah mammy . . . and she learned it from her ol' massah, befo' she belong to you."
This is Sirk's uglier, meaner America, a place where women must endure constant indignities. Sarah Jane escapes her home not by finding work at a confectionary (like Peola), but instead for sanctuary in a seedy nightclub where she rocks sensuously on a carousel chair. We're meant to hate how callously this self-absorbed slut scrapes her history and her mother out of her new, self-invented life. (In fact, an interlude where her boyfriend beats her up after discovering her "true" race might be a dose of come-uppance for Sarah Jane intended to reassure 50's audiences both black and white upset by the potential anarchy unleashed from being so "hincty".) But modern eyes regard her instead as a proto-third wave feminist who believes there's more dignity in sex work than domestic servitude, and acknowledges that minorities (racial or gender) can't wait for a magic "someday" to get what they want.
However, Sarah Jane's got to undergo the same public scourging that Peola endured at the original's end. Annie, dead from the broken-hearted loss of her doomed pale daughter, gets the baroque funeral she craved, only to have Sarah Jane rush to the coffin sobbing and repentant, willingly punishing herself by publicly acknowledging her blackness. Nowadays the in-between heroes of film are transgender characters like Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry or Bree Osbourne in Transamerica or Hedwig of Angry Inch fame. They, too, won't let society define who they are, but for them it's a battle of sex, not race. Indeed, many find it far less ludicrous when someone "passes" for another gender than if they insist upon declaring allegiance to another heritage. It's a shame that bright, obstinate, uncompromised and unique characters like Peola and Sarah Jane are stuck in an unsympathetic world. Then again, there's much about the situation and the societies represented in both version of Imitation of Life that's a shame.