Film Class Wednesdays winds down with the last three movies of the semester. This week’s film is 1934’s Imitation of Life, a landmark picture for its friendly(ish) view of African-Americans. However, for every leap forward in asserting a positive relationship between a white woman and a black woman, there are two massive steps backward. There are compelling dynamics at play with regards to race and gender, as well as a predominately all-female cast of characters to inspire audiences to watch this.
Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) is a widow struggling to raise her daughter. When Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) arrives on Bea’s doorstep, the two women decide to live together. As the years pass, Delilah and Bea start-up a restaurant and find success. However, their daughters grow up walking very different paths in life.
Imitation of Life is oft-considered a prime example of the “woman’s picture.” The cast is predominately female, with Ned Sparks and Warren William the two main male characters, and the picture’s focus is on motherhood and female friendship. Bea and Delilah are best friends who rely on each other and work together to succeed. It would have been easy watching Bea claw her way to the top of the restaurant business, exploiting Delilah due to her race. Thankfully, the movie isn’t interested in angry melodrama. Instead, the two women acknowledge their strengths-Delilah’s for cooking and Bea’s for management-working in unison to raise their families. Each woman goes through her own issues regarding her daughter, but neither is reliant on a man to fix their problems. When Bea learns her daughter, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) is in love with Bea’s fiancée, Stephen (William), there isn’t a competition or jealousy, emotions developed in melodrama; Bea gives up Stephen until Jessie is over him and that’s the end of it. It’s refreshing watching a drama where mothers love their daughters without feeling threatened for fear of usurpation by a younger version of themselves.
Despite the balanced relationship between Colbert and Beavers the former is firmly in control of the picture. Colbert is the epitome of good motherhood, rocking a ball gown in one scene and flipping flapjacks in another. She’s given the romantic element of the movie-Beavers, as the saintly African-American isn’t allowed the joys of new love-and her chemistry with William is good, although William did better opposite women who weren’t afraid to dominate him (Joan Blondell for example). The film backs away from turning William into an outright villain so the audience supports the romance between him and Bea. I was hoping William would turn into a con man, or fall into a tawdry romance with Jessie, especially after all the bluster Sparks’ character, Elmer, gives off Stephen as a man who’ll ruin Bea’s life. But the script remains respectful to realism and turns Stephen into a man whose never grown up.
For all Colbert’s grace, the true grit of the movie is the story of Delilah and her daughter, Peola (Fredi Washington). The movie is daring for the time period in the idea of two women, one African-American and the other Caucasian, being friends with each other. There’s no overt segregation or moments where Bea is discriminatory to Delilah….which makes the moments of overt racism an unspoken element in the plot itself. Bea is never discriminatory, but she never explains to Jessie why Delilah and Peola are treated differently. Sure, the two little girls are friendly without the outside world intruding on them, but Bea is never forced to defend her friendship with Delilah. The world in which the characters live is a magical land where discrimination happens all around, but nobody talks about. When Bea goes upstairs to her room Delilah goes downstairs to hers, with all the implications of class, race, and placement within the household spoken loud and clear. By failing to acknowledge it, the movie endorses it, and though it’s relevant to the times the movie’s themes ring false as a result.
Beavers is the sainted character of the bunch, whose devotion to her daughter and desire to care for others turns her into a 1930s Mother Teresa. The controversial, and therefore captivating, member of the group is Washington’s Peola. Many see Peola’s “passing” for white as a rejection of her African-American heritage, which it is. To me, Peola’s attempts to pass as white are her yearning for the respect and acceptance of the white community that is only gained by being white herself. The various moments where Delilah crushes Peola’s lie, causing Peola to reject her mother, break the young girl’s heart because she is rejecting her heritage. This interpretation softens Peola and makes her confession at her mother’s grave in the end a proper embrace of her African-American roots. She is the meaning of the title “Imitation of Life.” Peola imitates what she knows about the way the world works, proving one can pass but fail to live. Had the film not taken the time to reassert the character’s differences, Peola’s character could be utilized to further issues about racism quietly instead of shouting their acceptance of them as the film does.
Imitation of Life dated depiction of race of race notwithstanding, it counteracts that with its strong female relationships revolutionizing cinema in ways we aren’t given enough of in today’s cinema.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.