“I wanna be white — like I look!”
An industrious widow (Claudette Colbert) with a young daughter (Juanita Quigley and Marilyn Knowlden) befriends and hires an out-of-work African American widow (Louise Beavers) with a daughter of her own, light-skinned Peola (Sebie Hendricks). When Colbert turns Beavers’ special waffle recipe into a thriving business, they experience a life of wealth and comfort, though Beavers remains Colbert’s servant and only receives a small portion of the profits. As Peola (Fredi Washington) grows older, she becomes increasingly ashamed of her racial status, and tries to pass as white; meanwhile, Colbert’s teenage daughter (Rochelle Hudson) falls for Colbert’s new boyfriend (Warren Williams), causing additional tensions in the family.
Although Douglas Sirk’s overblown 1959 remake (starring Lana Turner) is much better known, this original, more faithful adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s classic women’s weepie remains the superior version, telling a distressing parable of how racial prejudice — both externally and internally manifested — can destroy lives. Beavers (giving a fine, sensitive performance) represents passive acceptance of racial expectations: it’s clear she wouldn’t even consider asking for more than a 20% share in the business product she created, or shifting away from her “duties” as Colbert’s caretaker despite her new (relative) wealth. Meanwhile, Washington — a mulatto actress and activist who deserves to be better known, and clearly should have had a bigger career in Hollywood — is fantastic in an undeniably challenging role, generating such authentic pathos that we can’t help empathizing with her even while hating the pain she’s causing her mother.
It’s interesting (but not surprising) to note that both liberals and conservatives were distressed by this (relatively) progressive movie, which is bold in its presentation of themes and concerns that simply weren’t tackled in mainstream Hollywood at the time. Knowing that white women were subsequently cast in comparable “Peola”-like roles — i.e., Ava Gardner in Show Boat, Jeanne Crain in Pinky, and Susan Kohner in the film’s remake — makes one especially appreciative of this earlier film’s attempt towards authenticity in that regard. According to Wikipedia, “In 2005, Imitation of Life was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry” and “was named by Time in 2007 as one of ‘The 25 Most Important Films on Race'” — both designations that make complete sense.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Fredi Washington as Peola
- Louise Beavers as Delilah
- A refreshing depiction of inter-racial friendship and social dynamics
Yes, for its historical relevance and fine supporting performances. Listed as a Personal Recommendation and a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.