By Jave Galt-Miller
The way characters of different races relate to one another in a film says something about the society in which that film exists, said a visiting professor from Princeton University last month.
The second speaker this semester for the University’s “Movies In America” series, Dr. Miriam Petty, used the 1934 John Stahl film, Imitation of Life, and a 1959 Douglas Siek remake as a focus for her discussion. The author and fellow in race and ethnicity studies was especially interested in conveying the African-American audience’s response to the popular movie as a litmus test for 1930s America.
The film follows two single mothers paired with daughters, one white and one black, as they rise out of hardship to wealth and success. Imitation of Life is ostensibly about being a good mother and the sacrifices that entails. But the film was also an unprecedented chronicle of African-Americans’ experiences in white society.
“Even the white press acknowledged that, though the film is built much more around the white plot than the black plot, every review I read of it said that it’s really the black plot that’s more interesting,” Petty said. “This is where the real emotional work of the film is being done.”
Petty played clips from the 1934 film for a packed Sweigart Auditorium on March 28 and explained the plot for those who had not seen the movie. In the film, Louise Beavers plays Delilah, the African-American mother, and Fredi Washington plays Peola, her light-skinned daughter. As Peola grows up, and as the unconventionally mixed family achieves greater prosperity, Peola realizes that she will never have the same opportunities as her white “sister.” This recognition understandably makes her angry.
During a scene that captures this conflict, Delilah and Peola are talking on the balcony of their apartment as the white side of the family has a party inside to commemorate 10 years of financial success — a success that was dependent on Delilah’s special recipe for pancakes. Delilah asks her daughter what is wrong, and Peola replies, “I wanna be white, like I look. Look at me. Isn’t there a white girl there?”
Peola refuses to accept the second-class identity that society thrusts upon her, and she runs away in order to “pass” as white. In doing so, she abandons her mother, who is devastated and dies of a broken heart.
Peola’s actions were interpreted in conflicting ways. Petty calls this varied reaction “The Peola Discourse,” and she explained that this is why Imitation of Life was so popular with African-American audiences.
“This is a character who is not saying, ‘I want to be white because I hate black people,’” explained Petty. “She is saying, ‘I want to be white because I want to have all of the things that I see other people enjoying. I’m a smart person. I’m a beautiful person. I have things to offer. Why should I be held down this way because of my race?’”
Peola is an unprecedented character for the era, and much of the African-American audience could relate to her feelings. Petty explained, however, that the black press did not always laud the role.
“There’s a level of tension in [the] discourse that codes Peola as racially disloyal,” said Petty. “You get stories like this about Fredi Washington and the African-American press where what she says is, ‘I don’t want to be white. I don’t want you to confuse me with this character.’”
But, overall, Petty said people saw the movie as a positive step toward better race relations.
“Folks were really optimistic about the film, in part because of the way that it made white people react to it,” she said.