When I was watching the film I distinctly remember one instance I threw my head back in the air and just smiled to myself. How I love Douglas Sirk. He gives us something seemingly so superficial and decadent that plays so perfectly into those expectations and simultaneously steamrolls them with a not-so-veiled indictment unfurled on multiple fronts.
This was Douglas Sirk’s final film in his U.S. career. It’s another gorgeously rendered picture. A harsh social satire of the ambitions of an American Dreamer but also the inherent fissures that run through our society to its very roots. These issues have hardly changed with time or if they have changed, it’s simply the same problems given a facelift. The core wounds remain the same.
Imitation of Life is a story that starts in New York, of all places, at the beach. For the first time, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) crosses paths with the kindly, God-fearing Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) who looked after Lora’s daughter when she got lost in the crowd of vacationers.
In less than a comfortable position herself, Lora nevertheless offers her home up to Annie and her fair-skinned daughter Sarah Jane who strikes up a fast friendship with Susie while showing early signs of vehemently despising her African-American identity.
Those are the core aspects of the story as the glamorous single mother follows her aspirations to star on Broadway first with commercials and then small parts that lead her to something more. She finds an agent (Robert Alda) and ultimately earns the respect of a noted playwright (Dan O’Herlihy) who soon writes all her roles. The demands on her time mean that a fledgling romance with a photographer (John Gavin) falls to the wayside and she hardly sees Susie.
Meanwhile, Annie remains a faithful friend by her side who keeps her house in order and looks after the girls as they slowly begin to mature into womanhood. And as they grow into women their own personal crises come to fruition. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) continues to try and pass as white while denouncing her mother. It gets so bad that she leaves home and changes her name to perform at dive bars where her mother hopefully won’t follow.
Susie’s (Sandra Dee) problems are of a different nature. She feels so alienated from her mother, the lady so often absent in her life, that she decides to attend college far away in Colorado. When Steve Archer (Gavin) drifts back into Lora’s life things are complicated by Susie’s obvious crush on him.
On both fronts of mother-daughter relationships, the film showcases its many themes playing out in vivid fashion. In fact, Imitation of Life feels all too resonate given the state of affairs in Hollywood and our world right now.
There’s this ongoing temptation to cheapen who you are for the sake of success. In this case, it applies to the theater and the career of Lora Meredith (Turner) but it could be in, let’s say, Hollywood or the corporate sector or any other endeavors. The jobs change but the people do not. Where you are forced to feel awful for not lowering yourself to other people’s level of sleaze and impropriety.
It’s a film about the fame monster and the industry dominated by a patriarchy where you are coaxed into making certain concessions so that people will like you and give you what you want. Just to maintain a career and your ambitions, your familial relationship, in this case, with a daughter is led to the point of deterioration. To this day, money and opulence, nice things and social standing, do not make up for an actual relationship. There’s no contest.
Ironically, only after the good fortune strikes and you have years of success do you begin to realize amidst the rush that the pinnacle has been reached and still something is missing. That’s Lora’s realization. But just as fervently this can be a film of idealism and dreams. Seeing things the way they are and making them more and more into what you want them to be. Being the change. That’s Annie’s part.
It is also a film about racism — a fixture of society — and a troubling one that is still opening up innumerable wounds in the fabric of our society and they are wounds that must be acknowledged. There is a painful scene that while a girl is being berated and slapped by her alleged boyfriend a playfully jazzy score dances in the background and it’s this disconcerting contradiction — the kind of contradictions that are often easy to pick up on if you’re willing to see them.
People loathe themselves for the color of their skin and the stigma society puts on their personal identity. Someone’s life is driven by shame instead of an unswerving pride in who they were created to be. And whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all part of the problem where being white is seen as being normal or the status quo or what have you.
One of the most striking moments in the film for me is when Annie is recounting the Christmas story to the girls and they ask a very honest question. “Was Jesus White?” or “Was Jesus Black?” Because it seems like a question that devises some way of relating to this historical figure. But it also forces you to see the astronomical error in such ideologies of a “white savior” or a “white man’s burden.” It simply cannot work. Nor does it work the other way.
Of course, as Annie sees so clearly, neither of these distinctions matter or any type of distinction because this was not a figure concerned with race or wealth or gender or respectability or any of that, at least in the sense that it holds importance to us. For him, as she sees it, it seems to have no negative effect on the relationship you could have with him. It doesn’t seem to matter and yet simultaneously it does immensely. Because it reflects our unique human identity.
Annie reflects those same types of ideals all throughout the film. You might take aim at her for being subservient or have qualms with something she does but it’s hard to question her sincerity or goodness. She has a prodigal daughter but just like the parable her maternal arms are always open and her daughter is never too far away for her to love Sarah Jane unconditionally even unto death.
I must admit it rubbed me the wrong way because Annie felt like yet another iteration of the mammy stereotype. One of Sarah Jane’s colleague even notes, “You had a mammy,” led to believe that the woman was simply an old housekeeper. But that’s the key. Annie Johnson is actually her mother. Aside from adding a searing undercurrent to the scene, it confirms she is not just a sideshow attraction for some southern charm. She is a parent and a friend and a person. In fact, the best scenes in the entire film belong unequivocally to Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner.
The original story the film is based on came out of a very different time in American history during the 1930s. Here it is updated and aware of the changing mores and difficult roads still to traverse thanks to the likes of Thurgood Marshall and his landmark case Brown v. Board in 1954 and the increased rumblings of the Civil Right Movement with the Bus Boycott and other peaceful initiatives spearheaded by Dr. King.
In the film’s closing moments Mahalia Jackson brings down the Lord’s house with her mournful dirge for Annie. And it is a bitter, heartwrenching moment of agony but that is not the final word. Because Annie was a tremendous person with an extravagant capacity for love.
Like Dr. King once orated in vivid Biblical imagery, “[I have gone] up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” That is the hope. Even in this embittered world of ours there is still something to be longed for.