Minorities of different skin
Have often dreamed of fitting in,
And none should stand opposed.
But in attempts of reaching par,
One should not give up who they are.
The hope of changing what has been
Means not the past should be disposed.
To shed yourself to fit the crowd
Will leave foundations disavowed,
And such will lead to shame.
It should be easy fitting in,
Regardless of one’s origin,
But in your act of standing proud,
The rest of us can do the same.
MPAA rating: Approved (should be G)
I picked Imitation of Life as one of my Blindspot picks because I had started to see it a while ago, and for whatever reason never got past the first scene. It wasn’t for lack of interest, though, and in honor of Black History Month, I’m glad I finally returned to this unique tale of a friendship between a white businesswoman and her black maid-turned-business-partner. It’s based on a Fannie Hurst novel released just a year before and had a remake with Lana Turner in 1959.
One interesting aspect of both the 1934 and 1959 version is the downplaying of African Americans in the marketing. Claudette Colbert as the ambitious Bea Pullman gets top billing, but based on the poster above, you may not be able to tell that the story deals with issues of race and identity. Opposite Colbert is Louise Beavers as Delilah, a sincere black mother in search of work to support herself and her uncommonly light-skinned daughter Peola. After Bea agrees to hire her as a housekeeper, Delilah’s recipe for pancakes (waffles in the book) gives Bea the idea to open a pancake restaurant in Delilah’s name, taking some plucky financial risks to do so.
First off, I know how hard it is to open a business; I once owned a hot dog cart that was sadly short-lived. Seeing Bea’s seemingly easy success with her pancake restaurant was strangely both satisfying and sickening. Was it really that easy back then? If so, why does it have to be so hard nowadays?! I tried to enjoy Bea’s booming business vicariously, especially since she then goes on to sell the pancakes as a mix, making millions, with the logo of “Aunt” Delilah’s smiling face clearly echoing the Aunt Jemima brand. Oh, man, do you know how long my mom has wanted to package her chili as a mix? Sigh… Sorry, I’ve got to stop being jealous of a movie.
Considering Delilah’s servile attitude (volunteering to rub Bea’s feet, for instance), it might be easy to knock her as a stereotype and to criticize Bea for milking Delilah for her own benefit without even asking, but Delilah is working and profiting with her all along the way and has the fame of the brand’s name and logo honoring her. Delilah remains loyal to Bea, wishing to live with her even after she has enough money for her own home, and though the arrangements reflect the social norms of the day (Bea’s bedroom upstairs, Delilah’s downstairs), it’s clear that the two women are good friends, regardless of race.
Beyond the initial restaurant storyline are two subplots dealing with Peola’s shame at her black heritage and Bea’s blossoming romance that is complicated by her own daughter. Peola’s story is what makes Imitation of Life unique. Because her father was also light-skinned, Peola can pass as white, but Delilah’s presence instantly labels her black and causes Peola to resent her own mother. At times, Delilah seems rather dense, embarrassing Peola when she should know by then how her daughter feels, yet it’s understandable for Delilah to want Peola to accept who she is and where she came from. Delilah’s earnest counsel that being black is nothing to be ashamed of feels like the heart of the film’s message, one that seemed ahead of its time in the ‘30s and was likely an encouragement for African Americans at the time. The other subplot with Bea’s daughter (Rochelle Hudson) and gentleman caller (Warren William) is less interesting but also carries somewhat the theme of someone being fixated on their feelings and needing to accept reality.
The trailers that did highlight the black actors featured reviews stating that Louise Beavers delivers the best performance by a black actress up to that time, and I don’t doubt that to be true. In her emotional scenes, Beavers is just as good or better than Colbert, and it’s unfortunate that her race was the probable reason she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. (Colbert won Best Actress that year but for It Happened One Night.) Fredi Washington is also excellent as the 19-year-old Peola, a role that fit her perfectly since Washington was also a light-skinned African American who had trouble finding work due to her conflicting race and appearance.
Boasting a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, Imitation of Life has some powerful scenes pertaining to racial identity and a good story and characters besides, but the resolution felt lacking, again mainly in relation to the plot about Bea’s boyfriend. A few moments are also dragged down by the acting conventions of the time, such as the very fake child acting of the first scene. It may not be a repeatably watchable classic, but for its treatment of interracial friendship and personal identity, it’s an important film nonetheless.
Best line: (Delilah, to Peola) “Ain’t nothing to be ashamed of, daughter dear. Meet your cross halfway. It won’t be near so heavy. Go amongst your own. Quit battlin’. Your little head’s sore now from buttin’ against stone walls. Open up and say, ‘Lord, I bows my head.’ He made you black, honey. Don’t be tellin’ Him His business. Accept it. Do that for your mammy, for your mother, dear.”
Rank: Honorable Mention
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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