The Imitation of Life Essay

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).

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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 in her subservience, there is lots of underlying symbolism in Bea and Delilah’s relationship. Underneath the smile Delilah is a rebellious soul that wants to be liberated from her unequal status. She wants to be treated the same as her white counterparts. She wants her child to experience the same pleasures as those of white youth. She wants to be offered the same opportunities as any other hard working man or woman with a passion for making a better life for themselves.

Despite all of these desires Delilah feels limited by the social stigma of being a black woman and remains imprisoned by the slave mentality that tells her she cannot voice these desires and opinions. As a result of this I think Delilah ultimately wants to be white herself, more importantly she wants to be Bea Pullman. She uses the defense mechanism of reaction formation (acting in exactly the opposite way of how you really feel) to make others think that she has accepted blackness and even tells her daughter, who tries to deny her blackness, “He made you black.

Don’t be tellin’ him what to do” (Flitterman-Lewis, 332). Because of her blackness Delilah denies the twenty percent earnings that Bea offers her, making it a “present” to Bea as long as she allows her and Peola to continue to live with her. Delilah’s inner desire to be white helps drive her attachment to Bea and creates a stronger desire to be her. She vicariously is able to experience whiteness through being a part of Bea’s life. She is able to live in a nice house, ride in a nice car, take part in a successful business, send her child to an institution of higher learning, etc. ll while standing in Bea’s shadow. On screen Delilah is the mammy character, who throughout cinema history has been denied to right to be seen as a sexual being. Essentially Delilah is unable to pursue any real interest of her own. In order to enjoy emotional companionship she spends her time comforting Bea (late nights rubbing her feet and talking about matters of the heart), and in the beginning of their relationship Bea served as a “man figure” for Delilah, in the sense that Bea went out and worked and played the role of the breadwinner while Delilah stayed at home and took care of the house and the children.

As time goes by and Delilah feels the need to experience true male affection she coaches Bea on how to show interest in males that try to court her, telling her “It ain’t romantic to want a man, just natural” and goes as far as to give Bea her rabbit’s foot to give her better luck (Flitterman-Lewis, 332). Bea and Jessie’s relationship also serves as an example of the mother-daughter relationship that Delilah would like to have with her own daughter Peola. All of Delilah and Peola’s problems stem from the fact that Peola wants to denounce her blackness and assimilate into white culture.

She despises her mother for being the reason that she has black blood running through her veins, and is irritated by the fact that her mother’s overbearing presence is the root of her every failed attempt to pass as a white girl. Delilah works to take Bea’s place in Jessie’s life as Bea becomes wrapped up in work (pre-fortune), running the pancake company (post-fortune), and her love life with Stephen Archer. Delilah knows more about Jessie and what is going on in her life than Bea does.

This could quite possibly set the stage for the rift that is created between Jessie and Bea, which later leads to Jessie falling in love with Stephen. Another interesting thing about Delilah’s underlying desire to be white is her daughter’s repugnance toward her black heritage. Peola wants nothing at all to do with black people, and often lashes out at her mother ranting and raving “I’m white, I’m white. ” I think Peola is Deliah’s inner self in human form. The frustration and discontent that Delilah really feels is voiced and acted out through her daughter.

Peola’s actions are seen as being more acceptable because of her light skin, however, if Delilah was to directly act out in the way that Peola does she was be seen as crazy (cause she is no where near being fair skinned) and “out of place” because society felt that blacks should know they are inferior to whites find a way to be at peace with that fact. Ultimately Delilah is not able to escape the curse of her color until she dies. This may be part of the reason that she wanted such a grand funeral.

She may have looked at it as a means of celebrating her liberation from the burdens of being black while being carried off to heaven by a pack of “white horses” that followed a marching band “dressed in white”, all while being watched by a sea of “white” strangers (a lot of the people who watched her funeral procession were black, however, it must be noted how they were positioned in inferior places in relation to the whites around them). As Bea strived to experience whiteness vicariously through Bea’s life, Bea exploited Delilah and used her at her convenience.

First of all, because Bea was not around she relied on Delilah to take care of her daughter until she went off to school, and even after Jessie was all grown up Delilah still served as her sources of comfort, which ultimately made Delilah Bea’s sources of information about the details of her daughter’s life. Even though Bea was the one who decided to market it, it was Delilah’s recipe that made her and Bea rich and without Delilah’s permission Bea would have never been able to market it in the first place.

Despite all of this Delilah is only offered twenty percent of the company earnings. Instead of giving Delilah the majority of the money Bea pockets that majority, making a heftier earning for herself. Also, in the same way that Bea serves as the male companionship that Delilah lacks, Bea uses Delilah to fill the empty void in her life that is later occupied by her lover Stephen Archer. Bea without a doubt becomes dependent on Delilah for affection, information, and eventually a source of income. Once she becomes involved with Stephen Bea begins to distance herself from Delilah.

Delilah is rarely featured on screen outside of the occasional shots of her in bed suffering, or the frequent arguments and searches, with and for Peola. Bea no longer has a need for her to do anything other than take care of the household. Louise Beavers did a wonderful job of touching the hearts of Americans with her light hearted humor, smiling eyes, and what appeared to be a genuine concern for others. Many people criticized Hollywood when they failed to nominate Beavers for an Oscar for her superb performance.

One critic by the name of Jimmy Fiddler wrote (Bougle, 64): “I also lament the fact that the motion picture industry has not set aside racial prejudice in naming actresses. I don’t see how it is possible to overlook the magnificent portrayal of the Negro actress, Louise Beavers, who played the mother in Imitation of Life. If the industry chooses to ignore Miss Beavers’ performance, please let this reporter, born and bred in the South, tender a special award to praise Beavers for the finest performance of 1934. ”

Although Imitation of Life will for decades to come be seen as a quintessential example of how blacks began to be seen as important assets to the film industry it will also remain a subject of controversy and debate because of its prejudice social constructs and underlying racialized politics. Delilah Johnson will forever be remembered as the black woman who strived to live and dream in the American way, but because of her race endured much struggle and hardship despite the fact that a path to a comfortable self sufficient life was laid out before her.

She was conflicted by the desire the live the life of the “other” but could not escape the racialized norms that society had instilled in her. Instead of living out an imitation of the idea American life, she instead imitated what she ultimately did not want to be, a black woman who accepted her placed in a world that at that time wasn’t made for truly successful Afro-American people.


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