Trouble of the world

“Imitation Of Life” concludes Cinematheque’s summer season on Friday.

“Imitation Of Life” concludes Cinematheque’s summer season on Friday.


Juanita Moore and Sandra Dee.

Juanita Moore and Sandra Dee.

Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film Imitation Of Life closes out UW Cinematheque’s summer season on Friday, July 31 at Vilas Hall, screening in a 35mm print, and it’s a powerful, timely selection. The film’s treatment of race, class, and the struggles of single motherhood made it bold for its time, and the execution and heart-wrenching story make it worth revisiting now.

Adapted from Fannie Hurst’s novel of the same title, Imitation stars Lana Turner as lower-middle-class single mother Lora Meredith, living in Brooklyn, who pines after a career as an actress on Broadway. At the outset of the film, Lora serendipitously meets Annie (Juanita Moore), a widowed black mother in need of housing. Annie swiftly becomes the caretaker for Lora’s daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) and her home. Throughout the film, Lora attempts, and at times abjectly fails, to balance her career and family life. Meanwhile Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), hopelessly and glumly tussles with her identity as a black girl living in a white home and society.

The story has two central, intertwined threads. The first is Lora’s successful but emotionally unsettling career, which leaves Susie quietly begging for her mom’s attention and lost love Steve Archer (John Gavin) waiting bitterly on the sidelines. The second focuses on Sarah Jane, who is forced to live under the Meredith household’s roof in the harrowing shadow of the benefits and opportunities in white society. This proves violently unsettling to her. As she develops, Sarah Jane, who has a very fair complexion for a black girl, cannot psychologically stand her position within society and decides to designate herself as white.

As the narrative unfolds, Sarah Jane becomes sickened and heartbroken about being black. The film devotes a notable portion of its narrative to the insecurity, pain, and embarrassment Sarah Jane incurs in struggling with her identity, and then also inflicts upon her black mother. In a beastly and dismal scene, Sarah Jane experiences likely one of her worst nightmares as she is outed as a black girl to her white boyfriend, who then gruesomely beats her in the face for humiliating him. More than just a pivotal trauma in Sarah Jane’s life, this scene is one of many in the film that explore how social inequities can destroy the spirit of children.

Lora’s career ascent offers glimpses into the sexism and trivialization women face in the entertainment industry, but the most interesting part of the film, to me, is how the film deals with race. It’s the most lasting element of this classic picture, and, considering the weight it is given in the narrative and the placement of Annie and Sarah Jane’s struggle at the beginning and end of the film, it arguably holds the whole work together.

To further iterate this point, the story is bookended by one of the most significant and historically relevant musicians in Black American history, Mahalia Jackson, wailing the blues. Jackson’s performance in the final scene—as she sings, “No more weepin’ and wailin’/ Soon I will be done, ooh, with the trouble of this world”—is awe-inspiring in its fidelity to the disconsolate feelings of sadness and sympathy created at the emotional high point of the narrative. The performance basically knocks you out with its emotional salience. Jackson’s profound wailing and improvisational style reflects the black struggle and the overwhelming comfort needed to heal the wounds of racism.

Further(some conjunction word), the film’s execution makes it compelling beyond the importance of these themes, especially in Turner and Juanita Moore’s skillful performances. Turner portrays Lora with the right balance of self-absorption and shrewdness. Turner creates an atmosphere of uncertainty as to whether Lora knows that she is being terribly irresponsible with her life or simply is oblivious to the problems she creates. Juanita Moore’s performance as Annie, which got her nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress, remains powerful and sweet. The way Moore carries herself as Annie—that is, the way a black person was expected to act in the presence of white company—holds resonance and significance throughout the film. It also deepens the viewer’s sense of how tragic Annie’s situation is. Annie faces adversity with a stoic contentment, and that makes Jackson’s performance in sight of it all more poignant.

This formidable cast in turn helped Sirk steer Imitation Of Life away from narrative cliché. While Sirk certainly uses his share classic Hollywood storytelling techniques in this film, he also weaves in an unflinching treatment of racial and gender themes with the more standard elements of romance and interpersonal tragedy. The resulting balance has given the film its enduring edge.

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