Imitation of Life is a 1959 film, re-released in 2013, that tells a story of two women and their daughters of different skin color and social statuses. These differences affect their lives and lead to different consequences. Through imagery, symbolism, comprehensive dialogues and other instruments, the film communicates the necessity of remembering one’s origin and his or her true self. However, the film has a number of misconceptions that make it harder to understand the motives of some characters.
The film opens with the scene in which Lora Meredith loses track of her daughter Susie at the beach. A black single mother, Annie Johnson, finds the girl and looks after her until Lora finds them. At first, she has no idea that the brown-skinned woman is the mother of “light, bright, damn near white” Sarah Jane. “How long have you taken care of her?” Lora asks Annie. In fact, like her “practically white” father, the girl is a fair-skinned African-American and can pass for a white, and she does it with fierce zeal and fervor. Lora becomes enormously surprised when she learns that Annie is not Sarah Jane’s nanny. Nevertheless, there is no way for the viewers to get to know Sarah Jane’s father’s race (actually white or practically one) for sure as the man took off before his daughter was born, leaving her mother to fend for her and herself alone. Sarah Jane’s despair is presented in the scene at the beach when Susie asks her where she lives. The girl answers that she lives nowhere and starts crying.
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Some illogical actions in the film start from its very beginning. Sarah Jane’s mother is jobless and homeless. However, Annie begs Lora to take her and her daughter in. However, the reason why the jobless woman wants to move in with Lora who cannot even pay her for her work does not make much sense. She could move in with a more prosperous white woman and just ask Lora to take Annie and her daughter in for one or several nights. Nevertheless, the two women move in together.
The most interesting plotline is about the relationship between Sarah Jane and Annie. Sarah Jane is not happy with her station in life. Even more, she blames it on her mother’s dark skin. Her hatred for dark skin color is illustrated in the scene where Susie presents to her a black doll; however, the girl becomes unsatisfied with such a gift. Her next action tells a lot about her character – Sarah Jane takes Susie’s white doll away from the girl. However, Annie gives the white doll back to Susie and picks up her present to Sarah Jane in order to show her daughter that there is no reason to be ashamed of her skin color. Though, a minute later, Sarah Jane grumbles at the place where they will sleep with her mother, “I don’t want to live in the back. Why do we always have to live in the back?” Thus, the girl thinks of her skin color as the reason for her station of life.
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Furthermore, Sarah Jane wishes Lora to be her true mother. She thinks of dark skin as of something disgusting and cursed. Later in the film, Sarah Jane even pricks Lora’s daughter to find out if their blood is of the same color. She explains it by telling that she has heard that blood of African Americans differs from the white blood. The girl also wants to know of what color Jesus was. Even though she receives no answers, Sarah Jane fills the silence by stating, “He was like me…white.” The discord the girl brings to the new household also follows her to school. One day, when Sarah Jane’s mother appears during the middle of class, Annie finds out that her daughter has been passing for a white.
No doubt, Imitation of Life is the film full of stereotypes. The most important stereotype in Imitation of Life is that of African Americans as saints. Annie is very patient with her daughter. The mother never backhands or raises her voice at Sarah Jane, as one can bet many parents would do if their child acted like Sarah Jane did. It is difficult to sympathize with Sarah Jane, as her mother is that Christ-like in the face of her daughter’ ingratitude. In fact, Sarah Jane as a child has been through a lot. Her father abandoned her; her mother mismatches the society they are supposed to live in. She cannot help living according to a Gypsy-like existence, because of the limited resources her mother can draw on in order to survive. As Sarah Jane matures, the viewers can only hope that she would develop a three-dimensional perspective to view her life more complex and transfer the anger the daughter has with Annie to satisfaction of her race and origin. This never happens, though.
A decade later, the girl is still furious with Annie for being black. It does not matter for her that Lora has become a movie star and that her mother and Susie live in a luxury house. In addition, Sarah Jane does not want to date a colored boy, refuses to help her mother serve Lora’s guests and to enroll in a college for colored teachers.
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On one count, one can agree with Sarah Jane and her decision not to serve Lora’s guests. The viewers find out that Sarah Jane’s mother has saved every bit of her money, while Lora has spent hers carelessly. Annie saves cash for her daughter’s schooling and for the lavish funeral of herself rather than investing in the creation of life on her own. Keeping the money for one’s funeral at such age is a misconception even for 1950th. In the film, it appears to be that the only thing this African American woman has to look forward is death. Not least logical is the next Annie’s decision. Since her daughter decides not to go to teaching school and the woman does not need to drop any coin on Sarah Jane’s education, Annie, though, decides to spend this money for tracking her daughter down when the girl runs away.
Sarah Jane decides to run away when Annie makes it impossible for the girl to pass for white in the bar where she has been performing at in secret. Also, the beating of Sarah Jane by her white boyfriend after he has found out who her mother is has led the girl to head to California. Sarah Jane’s decision to pass for white in order to work in clubs is strange as well. Of course, she is led by the desire to pass for white in order to obtain opportunities that are denied to her in a racist society, and she says, “I want to have a chance in life. I don’t want to have to come through back doors or feel lower than other people.” Rather than giving Sarah Jane a worthy motive to pass, the creators of the film chose to exploit the stereotype of a woman of a mixed race as the prostitute. In stark contrast to this, it is emphasized how white Lora refuses to lie that she is a movie star on the casting couch. Thus, the white woman is shown as the one who has integrity while mulatto loses it. However, Sarah Jane changes her mind when her mother dies and asks her for forgiveness.
Imitation of Life touches upon such actual themes as the themes of love, hatred, money, racism, envy, deception, friendship and difficult relationships between mothers and daughters. Tragic relationship between Sarah Jane and her mother Annie is the most interesting plotline. This story is very instructive and calls people on to work on themselves in order to become better, rather than keeping anger and outrage within.
- Hunter, R. (Producer), & Sirk, D. (Director). (1959, 2013). Imitation of life [Motion picture]. United States: Universal International Pictures.