Imitation of Life

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. Imitation of Life comes recommended to lovers of classic cinema.

The novel of the same name 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 the black housekeeper, Delilah (Louise Beavers), and her mixed-race daughter Peola (played by Dorothy Black), who appears as if she is white. Together, they become like family, and Bea and Jessie particularly enjoy Delilah’s sweet pancakes. She opens a pancake restaurant in New Jersey that is a big hit. Meanwhile, Peola does her best to conceal the fact that she is black. She is embarrassed by her mother. 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 grant funeral to beg for forgiveness from her dying mother and decides to embrace her African ancestry. Bea and Jessie also reunite.

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