Original release: April 17th, 1959
Running time: 125 minutes
Director: Douglas Sirk
Writers: Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott, Fannie Hurst
Cast: Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner
From the age of 10 until my early 20’s, my racial identity was something I struggled to accept. Born and raised in the West Indies and then moving to the UK, I always thought I knew who and what I was.
In a new country and faced with a new culture, suddenly skin colour and the need the identify one’s ethnicity became an issue.
It seemed you were third class if you were anything but white. I saw it everywhere I went; in the way the kids were treated at school, the way my parents were treated when we went out and the way teachers assumed just by looking at me that English was not my mother tongue.
Because of this, I began to resent my parents and blamed them for what I saw as their fault. I should’ve been born to white parents and not to them and I tried everything I could to hide the colour of my skin or wash it off. I’d heard the cold could make you white so I tried to stay out as long as possible but that didn’t work either, it only made me ill. I was ashamed of who I was and where I came from, and I’m sad to say I pushed my parents away in an attempt to “act white” and fit in.
I was 21 when I first saw Imitation Of Life. It feels like a lifetime ago, and though its story was set some decades previously to mine, somehow it didn’t matter – it hit me really hard. Over the next years it was never far from my mind as I finally started to accept, and even embrace, what I was once so ashamed of.
Based on the book of the same name by Fannie Hurst, it begins in the late 40’s with Lora (Lana Turner) at the beach on a crowded and sunny day looking for her young daughter, Susie. Lora becomes frantic and a stranger offers to help her. His name is Steve (John Gavin). When they find Susie, she’s safe and being looked after by a black woman, Annie (Juanita Moore), and paying with her daughter, Sarah Jane – whose skin is so fair she could pass for white.
As the women get to talking they become friends and realise they’re both widows with daughters the same age. Annie offers to come and work for Lora and help her take care of Susie so she would have time to concentrate on her career as a Broadway actress. Although Lora can’t afford to pay, she accepts the offer and Annie and Sarah Jane move in with her and Susie.
As time passes we see Lora becoming a successful actress who gives little attention to Susie. Annie becomes her surrogate mother but Sarah Jane is struggling with her racial identity. She desperately wants to be white and feels ashamed of having Annie as her mother.
The story then picks up eleven years later and we see Lora and Steve meeting again after having not seen each other in a long time. The girls are now teenagers. Susie (Sandra Dee) develops a crush on Steve, although he becomes involved with her mother. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) starts to tell people she’s white and the tension between her and Annie grows. Annie finds out she’s not actually working at the library but is instead entertaining men in a burlesque club. After a heated argument, Sarah Jane tells her mother she wants nothing to do with her and leaves home.
Without her daughter, Annie grows more and more depressed and her strength to keep going begins to wane. Though there are several different plots running through Imitation Of Life, it’s the unfolding drama of this mother/daughter relationship that kept me glued to the screen for over two hours.
After Annie passes away, Lora spares no expense and gives her a funeral fit for royalty. With the church bedecked with flowers, gospel star Mahalia Jackson sings Trouble Of The World and not an eye in the Lord’s house remains dry. As Annie’s coffin is carried away, it’s flanked by what looks like thousands who’ve come out to see this remarkable woman into her next life.
White and black are united in sorrow and as the carriage gets ready to make its way through the city’s streets, but Sarah Jane comes bursting through the crowd. A police officer tries to hold back the distraught girl and for the first time in her life, she says “That’s my mother!”
To hear the emotion in her voice knocked me back, but it’s when she throws herself on Annie’s coffin and pleads for forgiveness, that was when I realised I’d been doing the same thing all along to my own parents. For years I begged them not to collect me from school because my classmates would see them and there were times when I yelled and quarrelled with them over these very issues seen in Imitation Of Life.
As Lora, Susie and Steve look on, Sarah Jane pours her heart out and confesses “Mama, I didn’t mean it. I do love you; can you hear me, Mama?” At the same time I saw how I had allowed racism to seep beneath my own skin and hurt those I loved the most. Though it took some more years, I finally worked through all of my racial angst and rose above it to embrace my roots, no longer allowing a racist few to make me feel ashamed.
Imitation Of Life helped me to see that and played a part in bringing me closer to my parents, especially my mother. While Sarah Jane was too late to let hers know how much she loved her and to ask for forgiveness, I made sure I wasn’t.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .