Scene It: Mahalia Jackson in Imitation of Life

The other night, my heart broke while watching Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. It seems like All That Heaven Allows has a greater impact on the culture–feminists love Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson provides ample fodder for the queer theorists, it got the Criterion treatment along with Written on the Wind. However, Todd Haynes seems equally influenced by Heaven and Imitation, bringing both films’ preoccupations with closeted identities and tenuous racial integration into Far From Heaven.

Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert as Cathy Whitaker and Raymond Deagan; image courtesy of sensesofcinema.com

Imitation resonated with me in terms of how women attempt to form bonds across racial lines and the racism and self-loathing women internalize to accommodate white Eurocentic beauty standards. I can’t relate to the second issue like Sarah Jane Johnson (Karin Dicker as a child, Susan Kohner as a teenager), a biracial girl attempting to pass as white in pre-Civil Rights America. Nonetheless, I ache for her to love and accept Annie (Juanita Moore), her black single mother who works as a caretaker for Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a successful Broadway actress whose career places demands against being a full-time mother to daughter Suzie (Terry Burnham, later Sandra Dee).

As a white woman, I’m sensitive to Annie and Lora’s friendship and its power imbalances. Black and white women historically have a difficult time being friends. It’s hard to ignore cultural differences and systems of inequality while holding onto them at the same time, figuring out when to be empathetic and remembering to treat people as individuals and not symbols. Speaking in generalities, many white women feel good about being friends with black women, and thus disregard black women’s humanity. They aren’t friends with black women so much as they’re proud of themselves for being friends with black women, factoring black women out in the process. When you bring in the racial injustices waged by white mainstream feminism(s), it’s little wonder that many black women’s default mode around white women is incredulity.

Annie convinces Lora to hire her as a nanny when Lora is still struggling to break into show business and Annie is ostensibly homeless. However, Lora becomes a sensation, acquiring the means to essentially buy her friend. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lora enslaves Annie, because I’m cautious to use a term so loaded that disregards Annie’s agency and suggests that Lora doesn’t consider Annie to be a person. But Annie is staff. As she reminds Lora late in the film, she’s paid to be the mother Lora didn’t have time to be. The sad irony is that she’s more of a mother to a blonde white girl than she is to her own daughter, who wants very badly to be treated like a blonde white girl.

Since it’s a Sirk movie, there are some amazing shots that beautifully visualize key themes. The opening credits shimmer as an avalanche of diamonds overwhelm the frame. They gesture toward Lora’s opulence. About half of the film’s budget was for Turner’s wardrobe, and I’d imagine most of it was spent on jewelry. The credits are accompanied by a song that shares the film’s title, sung by Earl Grant. The word “imitation” suggests that the diamonds could be fake, and thus represent a emotional hollowness underneath Sarah Jane’s aspirations. Don’t be an imitation of life, the song encourages. Embrace who you truly are. Lauryn Hill gave similar advice to self-hating black women in “Doo Wop (That Thing)”: “don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.” In this context, the jewels are garish and oppressive.

Another image that stays with me is Sarah Jane’s discarded black doll. Perhaps because I came of age during kinderwhore and the mainstream coopting of riot grrrl, dolls embody a white feminine ideal. As Ann DuCille notes in her seminal essay, “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference,” that ideal often excludes black femininity and its integration is troubled by colorism, hair politics, and fallacy of colorblindness. Even though I don’t want girls to see themselves as dolls, I don’t want Sarah Jane to hate the doll in her arms.

Sirk’s Imitation was the second film adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel. A lot of changes were made, particularly that Lora became independently successful as an actress instead of building her fortune on Annie’s pancake recipe. The casting is also interesting. Sarah Kohner is Jewish and Mexican American. She’s not black, and perhaps today the part would go to Hallie Steinfield (though don’t be so sure). But I think Kohner is a more progressive casting choice than Natalie Wood, who was considered for the role.

Hailee Steinfeld; image courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

It hurts to witness Sarah Jane’s desire to pass as white and her anger toward her mother that she can’t. She’s well aware of the limited choices and consequences of her racial identity, but hates her mother and herself instead of a racist society that so totally values whiteness. I was angry with Sarah Jane for how she treats her mother, and how Annie allows herself to be treated. She removes herself from Sarah Jane’s life as requested rather than fight to stay in it. I wanted her to shake Sarah Jane for her racist behavior and tell her that black is beautiful. But maybe this is just what I wanted to see, affirming that audiences prefer films that represent racism as a choice made by characters instead of an entrenched societal problem.

Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore as Sarah Jane and Annie Johnson; image courtesy of biraciality.files.wordpress.com

Annie dies of a broken heart after Sarah Jane runs away to be a white chorus girl. She returns for the funeral, throwing herself on the casket and claiming that she killed her mother. There are so many powerful moments in the final sequence, though I was particularly moved by the image of a black boy having his hat removed by an adult as a sign of respect when Annie’s carriage passes by. But Mahalia Jackson’s performance as a church soloist defines the film. I don’t want to make Jackson the voice of the Civil Rights Movement anymore than I want Annie to be reduced to a sacrificial figure, but it’s hard not to feel shame and heartbreak in Jackson’s solemn rendition of “Trouble of the World.” Mavis Staples believed the NPR segment linked above would make listeners stop and take in the power and grace of Jackson’s voice. She certainly does that in Imitation, reminding us of two lives cut short by racism that deserved to be lived.

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