Last evening Turner Movie Classics replayed the1959 film, "Imitation of Life." It, to me, was one of the classic great films of that era. It was a film centered in part on the pathos of race. It starred Lana Turner, a white -- very white and blond -- woman trying to make it in theater, John Gavin one of the most handsome actors of that time played Lana Turner's love interest, and Sandra Dee, Lana Turner's very sweet very white blond daughter. While their performances in the main plot of the film for that time were quite good, they were not, to me, the most important aspect for OUR time.
The side plot, in my opinion, was the center of the film. It included Susanna Kohner, as a mulatto young woman, Sara Jane, and her black mother Juanita Moore as the kindly Annie, Lana Turner's paid live-in housekeeper. Kohner received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actresses in 1960. Not surprisingly she did not win as the Oscar went to a whiter actress in another film. At least, however, Kohner was given recognition for one of the best acted content rich parts in one of the best films of the time.
Over decades, I never forget the movie and wrote a review on IDMB which appears there. If any get the opportunity to view or rent this film and if you care about the never-ending American sad saga of race you will not be disappointed. The film is as heart breaking as it is important.
I wrote (with some edits) the following:
I viewed this film when I was quite young and possessed very little political awareness. It would take the maturity of higher learning to understand why this film was so brilliant. It was a film ahead of its time discussing a subject that would not gain traction until decades later. It dealt with race in a way that reflected a 1959 Mad Menesque time when it was significantly more desirable to be white than black and when it was particularly difficult to be of mixed race origin. Those of mixed race were shunned often by both the black but most especially the white worlds. Sara Jane, the mulatto daughter of Annie, is for me the most compelling character. She is born to a black mother and a never-seen white father and desperately wanted to be accepted as white in a white centric world of privilege and social class advantage. She suffers humiliations because superficially she could pass for white BUT when her truth was understood she was brutally rejected and sometimes violently so. In her racial torment she distances herself completely from her black mother who achingly and heartbreakingly loved her but whom Sara Jane both loved and hated for bestowing upon Sara Jane her immutable genetic reality.
I so often throughout the years thought of this film. I loved the character of Sara Jane and empathized with her emotionally desperate yearning because of my own immutable circumstances. When I became more politically aware I knew why we were advocating for changes that were so necessary. Sara Jane was born too soon in a world that crushed, brutalized and destroyed both her and her adoring, tortured and sad mother who tried desperately to retain her daughter but could not. Sara Jane leaves her to make it in a white world and makes her mother promise to never look for her or even if encountering her on the street demands her mother pass her by without acknowledgment.
This film is a tear jerker for sure BUT an important film which I cannot recommend highly enough. It should NEVER be lost in time because it said so much about THAT time, the realities of our own time and why things had to change, did change but, in many ways, remain the same. I am proud that I stood up for that change and wanted to tell Sara Jane that things get better. Things did get better but as history unfolds we know we still have a long way to go, indeed.