The Imitation of Life

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Delilah Johnson: An Imitated Life

Imitation of Life can indubitably be considered one of the most moving and influential films ever produced in American cinema history. Based on the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst, the movie is directed by John Stahl and stars actresses Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers; it depicts the story of two widows, one black and one white, who meet, become friends, and work together to obtain their piece of the American dream for their daughters and themselves (Flitterman-Lewis, 325). The two women’s success is countered by despair that is ultimately the result of their daughters’ actions. One mother looses the man that she loves when she realized that her daughter has become her rival for his affection, while the other is heartbroken by the hostility and ultimate rejection that her daughter displaces onto her as she attempts to cross the color line (Bougle, 57-59). Imitation of Life made its box office debut 1934, a time during which the Great Depression and New Deal politics dominated the American social consciousness, and began to cultivate social liberalism (Bougle, 57). A noticeable shift in race relations began to occur; America appeared to be “doing away” with the violent and overt acts of racism of the past, however, in reality they were just being exchanged for more subtle and “socially acceptable” forms of racism (Bougle, 57-60). Imitation of Life appears to embody America’s newly found racial ideologies (hence the fact a black woman is depicted as having a close relationship with a white individual, in addition to overcoming the stereotypical poverty stricken life that many blacks of the time were accustomed to); however, upon close examination one can see remnants of pre-existing racial disparities. One of the most important and symbolic examples of the struggle between the black and white race can be seen in the relationship between the two mother figures in the movie. What appears to be, and maybe even starts off as a mutual symbiotic relationships turns into one that is slightly parasitic. Ultimately the white character becomes dependent on the black one and exploits her (the black character) at her (the white character) convenience, while the black character inwardly envies the white character, but masks her true feelings with what appears to be paramount devotion.

In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life Louise Beavers plays the part of Delilah Johnson, a bright eyed, kind hearted black woman that perfectly embodies the role of the stereotypical Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom (Bougle, 59). She has a daughter by the name of Peola who, like her father, is racially ambiguous, and uses this to her advantage as she goes through life passing as white. On screen Delilah crosses paths with Bea Pullman, the other mother figure in the film, when she accidentally shows up at Bea’s house in response to a help wanted ad. By the end of the morning Delilah is able to convince Bea to take her and Peola in, in exchange for free maid and child sitting services. Claudette Colbert plays the role of Bea Pullman and her character also has a daughter by the name of Jessie. Delilah and Bea become very close and spend several years together raising their daughters side by side, with Bea playing the role of the breadwinner and Delilah taking care of the house and the children (Bougle, 57). Bea and Delilah eventually get rich when Bea gets the idea to market Delilah’s secret pancake recipe. Bea offers Delilah twenty percent of all earnings, and presents the opportunity for Delilah to own her own house, car, etc. but in response to that Delilah says “…My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss Bea? I can’t live with you?” and “How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I aint here” (Bougle, 57). Although it is hinted at before, this is the biggest “outward” example of Delilah’s dedication and devotion to Bea. Outward is emphasized because although Delilah appears happy and content...
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