Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: Imitation of Life (1959)

Welcome back, Persephoneers! This week’s classic movie pick is a sort of follow-up to some of the discussion sparked by the Miss Representation documentary. Imitation of Life, made in 1959, stars Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, and John Gavin. The film is based on the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst and was directed by Douglas Sirk. It was one of the highest grossing films of 1959 and dared to tackle the controversial topics of how society perceives race and gender and how these perceptions can shape people’s lives.

The film starts out in 1947, and aspiring actress Lora Meredith (Turner) finds her lost daughter Susie in the care of African-American divorcee Annie Johnson (Moore), who has her own daughter, Sarah Jane. When Lora sees that Annie and Sarah Jane have no place to go, she offers them a place to stay. The two women and their daughters soon form their own little family, as Annie stays home and takes care of the girls and the household so that Lora can work and pursue her acting career.

Imitation of Life poster
Poster from the film. Image via Wikipedia.

While Annie is African-American and accepts the societal confines that come with it, her daughter, Sarah Jane, who is biracial, rejects her African-American heritage and embraces her white heritage. Even as a child, she passes as white so that she can enjoy the same privileges that Susie can. As Lora pursues her dream and becomes a successful actress, and as the girls grow, Sarah Jane (Kohner) sees how the differences in their races have determined not only Annie’s and Lora’s lives, but also the lives of herself and Susie (Dee), to whom Lora gives the best of everything. Lora and Annie do the best that they can to provide for a good future for Sarah Jane, but she leaves all of that behind so that she can start a new life over in a new town, posing as a white woman, and so that she can pursue her own dreams of performing.

Much occurs in the film, as it covers many years in the women’s lives, but the biggest thing for me that stood out was how much race determined the courses of these women’s lives at that time and how it still determines the courses of many women’s lives today. Lora, as a white woman, is able to see what she wants and go for it. Annie, who has had a difficult life as a single mother, anticipates that Sarah Jane has few options open to her in life because of her heritage—even though there are more options for her than were open to Annie—and she does the best she can to plan a future for Sarah Jane in which the younger woman can be successful. In the middle of all of this is Susie, whose mother can provide for her, but who bonds with Annie more because Lora is always working.

In one scene, after Sarah Jane has been brutally assaulted by a boyfriend after he learns that she is biracial, Lora and Susie discover how ashamed she is of having Annie as her mother. Lora insists that in their house, Sarah Jane is loved, and that her race doesn’t matter, because they are all human and all the same on the inside. Sarah Jane and Annie, however, know better than this, as their lives have been determined by their race and the color of their skin. Lora’s and Susie’s attempt at colorblindness are shown as not being a viable, realistic option to combat the racism and inequalities that exist in the world, and that the world can truly be a cold, cruel place for women, particularly women of color.  But it also shows how strong women can be if they unite in the face of adversity and support one another.

Imitation of Life is currently available on Netflix Instant, and the original film starring Claudette Colbert, which I hope to cover as well, is available through Netflix DVDs.

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