Film

Non-Tragic Mulatto

Violet Glaze
Sarah Kohner as Sarah Jane in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image