Imitation of Life

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I’ve always found dubious the notion that certain times in the past were ‘a more innocent age’; it is bandied about a lot when referring to the more demure sexual mores of times gone, the 1950s being the prime example. Of course the ‘innocence’ of comely young ladies (and it is nearly always ladies who are in question in such cases) was usually qualified by a repressive brutality that was anything but innocent in the way it sought to marshall the sexual or carnal impulses of adult human beings. Likewise racial jokes belonged to more innocent times – and many people genuinely, if mistakenly, saw them as little more than innocent. Of course the reality, in the US and elsewhere, we all know was another, even more brutal repression that permeated every aspect of everyday life: social, economic, sporting, religious and, of course, political.

A film that assesses – and roundly dismisses – this perceived innocence is Douglas Sirk’s 1959 masterpiece Imitation of Life starring Lana Turner and John Gavin. The film tells the tale of a white young widow who is also an aspiring actress and the black woman who moves in and works for her on a voluntary basis because she cannot get work elsewhere on account of her daughter, who is light-skinned enough to pass for white, and does at every possible opportunity.

Sirk’s film is an adaptation of Fanny Hurst’s 1933 novel, which was adapted for the screen by John Stahl a year later, a version that was more successful, both commercially and critically than the later one. Hurst was a prominent liberal and anti-racist activist of her day and a close friend of Zora Neale Hurston, and her book was initially seen as a landmark of committed anti-racist writing until a revisionist reading of it by black radical critic Sterling Allen Brown later cast it as a piece of Uncle Tom paternalism.

The 1959 film makes a crucial change from both the book and the original film; in the earlier versions the white woman profits from a pancake mix (inspired, I imagine by Aunt Jemima’s) invented by her black maid, who never receives any financial gain. It was decided by Sirk and his screenwriters Allan Scott and Eleonore Griffin that such a device would not be acceptable to contemporary audiences so they instead made the Turner character, Lora, an ambitious actress who neglects her daughter on her way to the top. This both manages to soften the film’s dialectics (though being a Sirk melodrama, the surface remains deceptively simple) and also casts itself in a moral quandary of its own: an anti-racist film that uses a black character who works initially as unpaid domestic help.

It is hard to imagine that this paradox escaped Sirk but the film is strengthened by its own implication in the racial attitudes of its time. Like Peter Mullan’s Magdalen Sisters, the film, rather than being a facile exercise in finger-pointing, implicates the viewer in a discomforting way and challenges them to examine their own participation in racial prejudice. At one point the well-intentioned Lora, says in surprise to the maid Annie that she didn’t think she had any friends, where of course Annie has many, all centred around the local black church. Sirk cannily withholds this information from the viewer for as long as Lora is unaware of it. It is an example of out-of-sight, out-of-mind and still as discomforting a perception for white liberals today as it would have been in 1959.

The most important role in the film though is that of Sarah Jane, Annie’s daughter, who passes for white, having suffered enough prejudice in her youngest days to become viciously hostile to the idea of being black in order to advance in life. Passing was a surprisingly common practice in the America of the time among those that could manage it, and Philip Roth has dealt with one such case in the character of the fake ‘Negro Jew’ Coleman Silk in The Human Stain. There was even the case of the American Nazi leader Lawrence Dennis, who was actually black. Sarah Jane’s behaviour in disowning both her mother and her race is shocking, and becomes increasingly so as the film progresses but equally shocking is the way people turn from friendliness to violent hostility when her ‘cover’ is blown. In this respect when people are disabused of their innocence, the true corollary is brutal revenge. So much for a more innocent time.

It is understandable why so many people passed, however terrible an idea it seems; for many of them the temptation to take the opportunity to build more for themselves, free from the shackles of racism, outweighed feelings for either family or community. But what the film astutely puts its finger on is the intransigence and absurdity of the racial mindset by which ‘diluted’ white blood can be ‘redeemed’ if the truth is not known – a viewpoint that serves to only reinforce the anti-racist truth that race is nothing other than a social construct, albeit a formidable one and one to be taken seriously.

Sirk’s film, like many of his 1950s melodramas, was critically panned at the time, which seems inconceivable today. The films were seen as crude and simplistic, which Sirk would surely have said was the point. It was by treating his subject matter in stylised, camp fashion that he was able to tap to the core of his argument in a way that few more earnest, realist films are able to do. It has become a truism to say so, but Sirk, in spite of the superficial triviality of his films’ look, was a far more serious filmmaker than Stanley Kramer. The critical reappraisal of his work took place in the 1960s and 70s and his heirs are almost exclusively fellow Europeans (he was German and fled the Nazis with his Jewish wife in 1938). And they are all directors for whom social themes and moral quandaries are (or were) the bread and butter of their cinema: Almdovar, Fassbinder, von Trier and KaurismŠki.

Imitation of Life still wields a hefty pertinence today, as the US is on the verge of electing its first ever black president; the racial climate in the States may be less charged than it was in the pre-Civil Rights days the film dates from but the question of racial identification and elusiveness has not changed much. Barack Obama has been accused by many black Americans of playing down his ‘blackness’ though far more are enthusiastic supporters of the man, born to a white mother and a black African father. Race has been a silent force in the election campaign, so silent that it may come to the fore only in the secrecy of the ballot box. Obama cannot physically pass as white though to some black people he is culturally doing so; but this time it may be white people that will be doing the passing – those who will say they will vote for a black candidate, afraid of being seen as racist, but who will cast their vote on racial lines when they reach the polling booths. The run-up to the McCain-Obama election may in future times be remembered by some as a ‘more innocent time.’