Racial prejudices in films. Imitation of Life by John M. Stahl. Hollywood Classics Review by Dewey Edward Chester.
Atlantic City, in 1919, is not just a boardwalk of rolling-chairs and expensive hotels where bridal couples spend their honeymoons.
A few blocks from the gaiety, permanent citizens of the town live, work and raise families like people in less glamorous cities.
White widow Bea Pullman is finding it difficult making a living selling pancake syrup as her husband had once done.
With a small daughter to raise, Jessie, she offers room and board for work to a Black housekeeper, Delilah Johnson, and her small daughter, Peola, whose white complexion does not reveal her mixed ancestry.
Delilah and Peola quickly become like family to Bea and Jessie, and of particular joy are Delilah’s pancakes, made from a special family recipe.
Using their wiles, the two mothers buy a storefront on the busy Atlantic City boardwalk for practically nothing. They open a pancake restaurant where Delilah cooks in the window.
Later, they set up a successful pancake flour corporation, marketing Delilah as Aunt Jamima; although outwardly, she continues to act as Bea’s housekeeper and maid.
The women become wealthy, but their children, Jessie and Peola become difficult to raise: Jessie is shallow, relying on charm. She is the first person to call Peola a nigger, making it clear their childhood friendship is doomed.
Peola refuses to tell her high school classmates she’s “colored” and is humiliated when her mother shows up at school one day, revealing her racial identity.
She begins “passing” for White and takes a job as a cashier in a White store.
But when Delilah and Bea track her down, she is so humiliated to be identified as Black, she tells her mother she is going away so she can pass as a White woman without fear her Black mother will show up.
Delilah is heartbroken and, in a melodramatic scene, takes to her bed, murmuring Peola’s name. Black house servants sing a spiritual as she dies in Bea’s arms.
Delilah had wished for a grand funeral, complete with a marching band and horse-drawn hearse, but moments before the processional begins, a remorseful, crying Peola appears, begging her dead mother’s forgiveness.
“Passing for White” was a compelling issue in 1930’s America. Universal Studios had difficulty with it, cinematically.
Of concern was the character of Peola, possessing sufficient White ancestry to pass as White, and the desire to do so.
Censors wanted interracial desire, taboo, objecting to a scene where a Black boy is lynched for approaching a White woman he believed had invited his attention.
“Imitation of Life” was in production from June 27 to September 11, 1934, and released on November 26 of that year.
It was nominated for three Academy Awards—-Best Picture, Best Assistant Director, and Sound-mixing.
In February, 2007, the picture was selected by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most important American films.