San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Imitation of Life (1959) – Race/Ism in Classic Hollywood

Full disclosure, when it comes Imitation of Life (1959) directed by Douglas Sirk, I'm not a fan, not of Douglas Sirk nor of Imitation of Life. My big problem with Imitation of Life is that almost everyone has issues, and with the exception of Juanita Moore's character, they are borderline, if not full-on, horrible people. The main villainy, however, is reserved for the "black" character, Susan Kohner, even though she is the one person who has a really good reason for being the way she is. By the way, I will come back to quotes around black later.

Let's look at a few of the white characters first. Sandra Dee has issues, mostly not of her own making. Growing up with no father and an inaccessible mother, she has abandonment issues. It's not surprising that she falls in love with her mother's beau the only father figure she has ever known. John Gavin is more or less a nice guy, though probably uses poor judgement, spending that much time with a 16-year-old with daddy issues.

Lana Turner, wow, what can I say about her. She is obsessed with herself and barely notices anyone else. As a Broadway actress, she probably could have been a good part-time mother, in the early evenings before she went to the theater, but apparently, she never did. She was good to Juanita Moore. She kept her with her all those years. That makes her a good person, right? In the Wikipedia article for Imitation of Life, they describe Juanita Moore's relationship with Lana Turner, as " nanny, housekeeper, confidante and best friend." Late in the movie, Lana Turner says that she didn't know that Juanita Moore had other friends. Apparently, this confidante and best friend is a one-way street. Lana Turner can confide in Juanita Moore, and she considers herself Juanita Moore's best friend, but she has never taken the time to get to know her beyond being a servant.

Now, I would consider this an indictment of white people's attitudes toward blacks a positive thing, but it's done in such a back-handed way. These white people are generally good, because they stick with the black people they know, even though, clearly, they consider their black friends subservient. Then again, Imitation of Life, has a bigger fish to fry, Susan Kohner's character.

Susan Kohner's character, Sarah Jane, treats her mother horribly, and this is the focus of the film. Sarah Jane from a very early age understands that white people have it way better than black people, and because of the way she looks, people assume she is white. The only thing that stands in her way is her black mother, and she treats her mother like crap because she threatens that illusion.

Imitation of Life is set in New York, and I honestly don't know what the racial climate was in New York in the 1950s,  Sarah Jane is fired from a nightclub for being black. Presumably, certain restaurants would not serves blacks or would serve them at the counter or not seat them at booths or tables. Blacks were expected to live in a black neighborhood, or in the case of Sarah Jane and her mother with their white folk employers. I don't think there were colored-only drinking fountains or restrooms like in the South.

While I was thinking about this piece, I got to thinking about colored only bathrooms, and I hope you don't mind a little tangent. I'm thinking the white bathrooms were nicer but not as clean. Think about it, if I was black, and the only job I could get was cleaning bathrooms, and I had to do it twice because white folk couldn't handle peeing with black folk, I wouldn't do as good a job on the white side, and the black side would be spic and span.  In fact, I think I'd pee in the mop bucket on the white side. "I'm sorry, suh. I just can't seem to get that pee smell out of the white restroom. I just don't think white folk is as good black folk at hittin' the commode. You've seen them on the basketball court."

Let's close by taking another looking at the three main characters. Juanita Moore's character is a saint. All she wants is is the best for her daughter, so much so that she is willing to not see her again, and it breaks her heart. Ultimately, she dies of that broken heart. But what does she really want. She wants her daughter to be true to herself. She wants her daughter to accept racial oppression and a life of subservience.

Lana Turner's character is supposed to be good. She has opened up her home to a black family, but only as servants and not as a true friends or family members. She didn't know what church Juanita Moore went to or that she had outside friends or that she still sent Christmas gifts to the milkman that helped them when they had absolutely nothing. But Lana Turned is good. She opened her home to a black family.

Susan Kohner is the devil incarnate. She broke her mom's heart, and that killed her. What right did she have to want to be equal to whites. She needed to be true to herself and accept her lot in life. Maybe things would be better by the time her light-skinned children or grandchildren grew up, provided they didn't make sudden movements around a cop. This is a bad person, or at least that's what the tone of Imitation of Life told me.

Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner, passing (for black)
Earlier I used quotes around black and said I would come back to it. Well, no time like the present. Imitation of Life (1959) is a remake of a 1934 film of the same name. In Imitation of Life (1934), the role of the black daughter was played by Fredi Washington, an African-America, whose parents were both of mixed African-American and European descent. Susan Koehner is the daughter of Austrian-American film producer, Paul Kohner, and Mexican-American actress, Lupita Tovar. Also considered for the role were Natalie Wood and Margaret O'Brien. Presumably there were no light-skinned black actresses in Hollywood in the late 1950s.

Is this as bad as Mickey Rooney playing Asian in Breakfast at Tiffany's? Of course not, but I would be a lot more willing to cut Imitation of Life some slack, if this sort of whitewashing wasn't still happening today. In a perfect world, Gods of Egypt (2016) would be entirely cast with actors of Egyptian/Middle Eastern descent, instead of a mostly white cast with the odd African-American and Asian actor thrown in for good measure. I know the line is that they need name stars to sell the picture, but how do actors of color get to be name stars when casting almost completely ignores ethnicity in what should be an entirely ethnic film.

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