Imitation of Life (1934) Review

Imitation of Life (1934) Director: John M. Stahl

★★★☆☆

I had first seen Imitation of Life in a class in college, mainly to spark a dialogue on racism as is common in college classes. However, mining old movies to make superficial criticisms about racist tropes or gender stereotypes is both easy and boring. I am always far more impressed by analyses with greater depth. The novel of the same name —Imitation of Life— was written by Fannie Hurst and inspired by her road trip to Canada with her friend and fellow writer, Zora Neal Hurston. It is an important film in the history of cinema, particularly pertaining to the issue of race in America. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It stars Claudette Colbert.

The film tells the story of a white widow, Bea Pullman (played by Claudette Colbert), and her daughter Jessie (played by Juanita Quigley), and their black housekeeper, Delilah (Louise Beavers), as well as her mixed-race daughter Peola (played by Dorothy Black), who appears to pass as if she is white. Together, they grow close like a family, and Bea and Jessie particularly enjoy Delilah’s sweet pancakes. As time passes, she opens a pancake restaurant in New Jersey which becomes a big success. Meanwhile, Peola does her best to conceal the fact that she is black. She is embarrassed by her mother and her race. Bea creates a company that markets the face of Delilah as a kind of Aunt Jemimah character. In the end, Delilah dies a sad woman, but Peola returns for her mother’s grand funeral to beg forgiveness and decides to finally embrace her African ancestry.

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