Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Imitation of Life


Lawsy mercy, honey chile! Ain’t it be some kinda miracle, de way colored folks has come a long way fum de way dey wuz always behavin’ in de movin’ pitchers back in de t’irties and how we sees ‘em now? Why, I do declare, it wuz dat way in de fo’ties, too, and even de fi’ties and sum into de sixties, I swan!

If I continue in that lame dialect any longer I’ll throw up. But nobody thought a thing about it back then. It was a movie standard for the Pullman porter, the shoeshine boy, the maid, and any black street urchin the white people encountered. Of course there were black dialects, still are, but everything about how they were shown back then was wrong, wrong.
Even worse was the attitudes on display. Here we have Louise Beavers who gets hired on as a maid to Claudette Colbert, who can’t really afford her, but Louise (playing “Delilah”) is just as pleased as can be to come to work for no wages, just room and board. She is just like all black mammies in cinema back then: A heart big as all outdoors, ultra loyal, pig ignorant, and living only to make her employers happy. Pretty much like a dog that can talk.

The funny thing is, this was an extremely progressive film for its time. They just weren’t making movies about race relations in 1934. All the black people were tucked comfortably away in stereotyped roles, a line of dialogue here and there, never a hint of discontent over their position in society.

Now here we have Louise and Claudette going into business selling Louise’s killer pancakes. First a small store, then marketing the mix (can anyone say Aunt Jemima?), then great wealth. Louise don’t want to bother her haid wit’ all dat business stuff. She jus’ wanna stay with Miss Colbert and take care o’ de chilluns.

But the chilluns is where the real story is. Colbert has a child, Jesse, and Beavers has a child, Peola. They are the same age, and grew up together since they were toddlers. Peola is pale enough to “pass” for white (played by Fredi Washington, who throughout her life adamantly refused to pass, though it would have been easy for her). She hates being labeled as Negro. And who could blame her? She sees the differences in how she is treated and how spoiled little Jesse is treated. We were a long, long way from “Black is beautiful.” Black was a cross to bear, a social stigma, a fucking skin disease like leprosy that kept you down in the gutter.

You know, so much has changed for the better, but one thing we still have has always bothered me. One drop of black blood, one great-great-grandparent, means you are Negro! This used to be enshrined in law in many if not most states. I don’t know how the census treats race these days, but they ask you, don’t they? (I might be technically Negro; I don’t have a clue who my great-great-grandparents were, but one side of the family is from Alabama. Who knows?) This idea establishes African blood as a taint, a stigma. Look at it the other way. If an African-American has one drop of white blood, from way back in the 19th century, does that make him white? You know damn well it doesn’t. Yet race is such a strong concept in our society that for a pale Negro to name himself white, to pass, is completely taboo … in the black community. You’re denying your people, your heritage. It’s the same with Jews. You can’t stop being a Jew, you were born that way, though it’s often easier to pass as gentile. I look at myself: German on my mother’s side, English and a little bit of French on my father’s side. But no one expects me to wear lederhosen and invade Poland, take tea breaks, or like Jerry Lewis movies. I do not identify with any of my heritage, and I’m totally cool with it. African-Americans largely have no choice in the matter. And, of course, today most take considerable pride in being black. But it’s still something that is defined for them, no matter how pale they are.

Okay, back to the movie. It’s easy to see what’s coming, though it tripped me up once. Peola disowns her mother, says she’s going away and never wants to see her again. Delilah’s heart breaks, she just fades away, first describing the big send-off she wants, complete with white horses and bands. (She knows how to spend some of that money she’s earned.) Peola shows up at the funeral, heartbroken, contrite. Meanwhile, Jesse has come home from school and develops a crush on Colbert’s ichthyologist fiancée. (Now there’s a profession you don’t often see in the movies. And he’s very handsome, too, with a profile like Barrymore.) Oh, heck: SPOILER WARNING: I expected him to be a cad, to go for the younger girl. But he is steadfast … and Colbert rejects him. Reason? Because if they married, it would estrange her from Jesse. He points out it’s a schoolgirl romance—which it certainly is, and shame on her—but Colbert won’t be budged. So the theme of the movie, other than the horrors of race relationships, is that mothers will do anything for their chilluns, even if they are spoiled little brats. Which sucks, in my opinion. Colbert doesn’t deserve her fishy lover if she will sacrifice her love, and his, for that little bitch.