In Fanny Hurst’s novel, Delilah’s daughter dreams of working in white restaurants, achieves her dream of passing and marries a white man before escaping America and her identity. In the 1934 movie as well as Sirk’s version Delilah/Annie’s daughter doesn’t get away so cleanly.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2021-10-10 20:30Z by Steven

In Fanny Hurst’s novel, Delilah’s daughter dreams of working in white restaurants, achieves her dream of passing and marries a white man before escaping America and her identity. In the 1934 movie as well as Sirk’s version Delilah/Annie’s daughter doesn’t get away so cleanly.

Rick McGinnis, “Leave Them Wanting More: Douglas Sirk and Imitation of Life,” Steyn Online, September 18, 2021. https://www.steynonline.com/11701/leave-them-wanting-more-douglas-sirk.

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Racial Masks and Stereotypes in Imitation of Life and Bamboozled

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-09-29 15:36Z by Steven

Racial Masks and Stereotypes in Imitation of Life and Bamboozled

Caméra Stylo: The Cinema Studies Undergraduate Student Journal
University of Toronto
Volume 13 (2013)
2013-04-01
pages 62-74

Nicole Wong

Visible signs of difference mark the racialized body only in com-bination with nonvisible social preconceptions and expectations. A racial stereotype is the link, the image, which ties the visible with the nonvisible imagined meanings and values specific to the culture in which they are produced and shared. The process of racial stereotyping therefore requires three components: the marked body, the collective society of meaning and image-makers, and the racial mask through which the latter views and defines the former. My concern in this article is how American1 popular culture and mass media entertainment has become the foremost platform for racial meaning production, perpetuating false racial stereotypes, yet at the same time attempting to expose its own role as image-maker.

As forms of popular mass media entertainment, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) depict such an exposition of the racial stereotyping process, but with significant differences that come with forty years’ distance. These two films function as tragic allegories of the racial stereotype production process as popular entertainment, wherein central characters mask their marked bodies, their self-identity and essential personhood. Racial stereotypes literally are enacted on stage to entertain an audience, a downsized representation both American media makers and receivers. Through the optic of Sander Gilman’s conceptions of the Other and the Self, I will explore the motives behind, and subsequent futility of, attempts to mask racial self-identities with media-defined projected identities that ultimately turn performers into the slaves of spectators. I will also position the ideologies of both films as reflections of the racial performer/audience relationship of their respective time periods…

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Leave Them Wanting More: Douglas Sirk and Imitation of Life

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-09-29 02:56Z by Steven

Leave Them Wanting More: Douglas Sirk and Imitation of Life

Steyn Online
2021-09-18

Rick McGinnis, Rick’s Flicks

When Douglas Sirk left Hollywood he was at the zenith of his career, twenty years after he’d arrived there as a refugee from Nazi Germany, unsure if he’d ever make another movie. He had just made his most successful picture, based on what was probably the most controversial topic in America at the time. Maybe he understood that it’s always best to leave when you’re at the top, or maybe he was just tired.

Imitation of Life was an update of a 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers – a drama about miscegenation and racism and the colour caste system that was no less controversial when producer Ross Hunter decided to remake it – as a musical. Thankfully, by the time Sirk started filming, it was a melodrama again, and one starring Lana Turner, just after her daughter Cheryl Crane had been on trial for running a kitchen knife through Turner’s boyfriend, a mobbed-up gigolo thug named Johnny Stompanato.

Based on a novel by Fanny Hurst, the original film directed by John M. Stahl had Colbert’s Bea create a culinary empire based on a pancake recipe passed down through the family of Delilah (Beavers), her African-American maid. Both women prosper, but Bea’s happiness is threatened when her daughter falls in love with the man she wants to marry. James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce – later made into a movie with Joan Crawford and a miniseries starring Kate Winslet – is basically a hardboiled rewrite of Hurst’s story, excising the crucial secondary plot involving Delilah and her daughter, a young woman striving to pass for white

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Why Didn’t Movies about Passing Cast Black Actors?

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-09-23 22:16Z by Steven

Why Didn’t Movies about Passing Cast Black Actors?

JSTOR Daily: Where News Meets Its Scholarly Match
2021-02-03

Matthew Wills


Fredi Washington and Louise Beavers in a scene from Imitation of Life via New York Public Library

“Social problem” films were all the rage after World War II. So how could movies about racism be so conservative?

After World War II, Hollywood tried something new: realism, tackling social problems like mental illness, drug addiction, anti-Semitism, and racism. But as media-studies scholar Karen M. Bowdre argues, films “about” race and racism “often focused on the concept of passing, a Black character claiming his or her White heritage while denying any African ancestry.”

Passing movies also tended to cast white actors in the roles of mixed-race characters who passed as white. But that wasn’t the case with the original version of Imitation of Life, made in 1934. Fredi Washington made history by being the first Black actress to play a character (“Peola”) who passes as white. Even more unusually, two Black children were cast to play the part of Peola at ages three and seven.

The Production Code Administration (PCA), the industry’s self-censorship office, was roiled by director John Stahl’s casting choices. The PCA’s “voluminous” file on the film is filled with references to miscegenation, which isn’t a topic of the movie, but presumably would be raised by white viewers who would want to know why Washington looked so “white.”…

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Race and Authenticity: A Film Study on Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Passing, United States, Women on 2021-02-10 17:27Z by Steven

Race and Authenticity: A Film Study on Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life

Drunk Monkeys
2020-05-18

Ilari Pass


Image © Universal Pictures

“It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are.”
—Annie Johnson, Imitation of Life

Literature helps the reader travel inside the skin of the character—the mystery of another human being—and this understanding unsettles the reader’s received notion about the ‘other,’ a person who might be otherwise judged. The same can be applied to studying a film, allowing us to enhance our appreciation of subject matter that depicts a range of human experience by carefully looking at the artistic systems, such as cinematography, lighting, costume, and acting, that produce a rich and textured work of art. Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodramatic film Imitation of Life, which depicts the lives of four different people living in a world that is beyond their control, is a film that operates at the level of art. The first half of the film deals with a question from a feminism perspective, about what it means to be a woman living in a male-dominated society, and the second half addresses the perspective of how women of color are affected by racism. It is a story about imitating, pretending to be something that isn’t true. However, what is true is what the characters literally see—gender and race—something no one can walk away from…

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Escaping Blackness

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2020-03-07 02:03Z by Steven

Escaping Blackness

New York Review of Books
2020-03-26

Darryl Pinckney


Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York City, 2019
Dominique Nabokov

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Norton, 174 pp., $25.95

The black individual passing for white in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction by white writers is usually a woman, and usually when the truth emerges, the purity of the white race is saved. However, in An Imperative Duty (1891) by William Dean Howells, a Boston girl is ashamed to find out that legally she is colored, but her white suitor marries her anyway and takes her off to a life in Italy. In the beginning of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), a “high-bred” black man in North Carolina returns to his hometown to ask his sister to take his dead white wife’s place and bring up his son. A young aristocrat she meets in her new white life proposes marriage, but soon learns the truth of her origins. Literary convention, in the form of a fever, kills her. The white suitor realizes too late that love conquers all. He promises to keep the brother’s secret.

The secret was as radical as Chesnutt could get. From a North Carolina family of “free issue” blacks—meaning emancipated since colonial times—Chesnutt had blond hair and blue eyes. He wouldn’t pass for white, because if he became famous then he chanced someone appearing from his past. He preferred to pursue reputation as a black man. Chesnutt had cousins who crossed the color line and he never told on them, viewing passing as an act of “self-preservation,” a private solution to the race problem. The big escape from being black was an American tradition. Three of Sally Hemings’s six children ended up living as white people.

The nameless narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a widower and a father, says little about his life as a white man. He is interested instead in his past as a black person, his life with different classes of black people, his wanderings around Europe as a young musician. When he returned to the United States and went on a folk song–collecting tour of the South, he witnessed a lynching—a black man being burned alive. Terrified, he got himself across the color line. He didn’t want to belong to a racial group so utterly without power…

Thomas Chatterton Williams, who belongs to the hip-hop generation of multiculturalism and diversity, is willing to risk being a throwback in his memoir/essay Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. To speculate on the racial future, he goes back to the days when the black individual who could do so took the side exit from segregated life to personal freedom. He deals with passing for white, class privilege, and his hopes for the possibilities of race transcendence, knowing perfectly well that because he is light-skinned he can contemplate racial identity as being provisional, voluntary, situational, and fluid…

Read the entire review here.

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“Black Wimmin Who Pass, Pass into Damnation”: Race, Gender, and the Passing Tradition in Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life and Douglas Sirk’s Film Adaptation

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2019-06-21 20:07Z by Steven

“Black Wimmin Who Pass, Pass into Damnation”: Race, Gender, and the Passing Tradition in Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life and Douglas Sirk’s Film Adaptation

Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 49, Number 1, Winter 2019
pages 27-54
DOI: 10.1353/jnt.2019.0001

Lauren Kuryloski, Assistant Professor of Teaching
State University of New York, Buffalo

Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life is ostensibly the story of Bea Pullman, an entrepreneurial, white, single mother who establishes a successful waffle-house restaurant chain with the help of her black maid and friend, Delilah. It is also a story of ‘passing,’ and Hurst’s only novel explicitly dealing with issues of race. The novel was later adapted into two films, with Douglas Sirk’s 1959 version the adaptation discussed here. While both Hurst’s and Sirk’s versions of Imitation of Life were met with widespread commercial success, each treatment illustrates the narratological challenges of working with the passing trope, particularly when attempting to represent the relationship between black and white characters and acts of gender and race passing. Hurst’s and Sirk’s depictions of passing, and more specifically their employment of the ‘white passing’ narrative, reveals the irresolvable paradox of all such acts. To pass is to both subvert notions of fixed identity categories and cement them, a reality elucidated by the complicated representation of gender and race passing in novel and film.

Both literary and cinematic versions of Imitation of Life interrogate passing and its potential to destabilize existing social hierarchies. Although Sirk exercises significant artistic license in his adaptation, both versions of the story adhere to the same essential narrative arc. In each text the central white female protagonist, known as Bea in the novel and Lora in the film, accomplishes a gender pass, moving into the masculinized public sphere to secure financial stability for her family. Similarly, each version of the narrative features the light-skinned black daughter of the protagonist’s maid, known as Peola in the novel and Sarah Jane in the film, who performs the traditional racial pass in an attempt to enjoy the financial and social privileges associated with whiteness. Through the depiction of these double acts of passing, the narratives construct a commentary on the very real limitations that white and black female characters face in an unequal society. Moreover, the characters’ abilities to pass into different identities suggests the inherently performative nature of all identity categories, deconstructing essentialist notions of race and gender and revealing the subversive promise such performances hold. The passing trope’s allure resides in this ability to upend static conceptions of selfhood.

Yet despite the progressive potential to disrupt normative identity codes that passing appears to offer, Hurst’s and Sirk’s texts demonstrate the inherent internal conflict of all such narratives, as passing is often suggestive of subversion while in fact reifying the very same systems it purports to undermine. Although the passer may transgress established social boundaries and upset notions of fixed-identity categories, the move across identity lines simultaneously grants authority to binary constructions of identity. This paradox is at the heart of any act of passing and serves as the primary conflict in both novel and film. The characters in Imitation of Life may achieve varying degrees of financial or material success by passing, but their success is fleeting and mitigated by the system of narrative punishment that is doled out for their actions. While the texts toy with depicting race and gender identity as social constructions to be both challenged and performed at will, both the novel and film conclude that such performances are but imitations of real life, even when ‘real life’ is simply an adherence to essentialist race and gender roles. My work offers an analysis of this punishment and (occasional) reward system through a study of the way in which acts of racial passing are used in the service of moving the white female protagonist toward either her ultimate narrative chastisement (in the novel) or her redemption (in the film), demonstrating that passing relies on the maintenance of normative social hierarchies.

Both Hurst’s and Sirk’s versions of Imitation of Life have received significant critical attention, and the genre of passing has itself been the subject of sustained scholarly debate. However, while both the novel and film…

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Imitation of Life

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-12-26 23:30Z by Steven

Imitation of Life

Charisse L’Pree, Ph.D.: The Media Made Me Crazy
2005-04-20

Charisse L’Pree, Assistant Professor of Communications
S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications
Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York

Written during the dismal conditions of the Great Depression, Fannie Hurst’s novel, Imitation of Life, was adapted to film in 1934 and 1959. It tells the story of two widowed mothers, one white and one black, raising their daughters amidst a climate of capitalism and racism. Despite the drastic changes in the movie industry and culture, both versions met great success. Using the conventions of female melodrama, the story foregrounds the dilemmas of motherhood while commenting on capitalism, racism and image. In this paper, I will address how this story manages to transcend a generation and how the narrative was changed to accommodate a postwar audience. I will also discuss how the movie industry affected the production and marketing of Imitation of Life at the cusp of the tumultuous 1960s.

Released in 1932, Hurst tells the story of Bea Pullman, a young widow looking to sell her deceased husband’s excess of maple syrup and take care of her daughter, Jessie. She hires Delilah Johnson as a sleep-in housemaid who brings her remarkably light skinned daughter, Peola, to complete the family. After eating Delilah’s pancakes, Bea decides to go into business selling pancakes on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. The story then follows as the business becomes successful, Bea falls in love with Steve and the daughters begin to grow up and begin to develop their own lives. Hurst was a close friend of acclaimed author Zora Neale Hurston and Hurst’s descriptions of the black American experience are remarkably detailed and fitting for the time…

…The year before America’s famed sixties, Imitation of Life was released in theaters. Sirk’s story was different from Hurst’s or Stahl’s. Bea Pullman was renamed Lora Meredith, an aspiring actress struggling in New York City with her daughter, Susie. On the beach, they meet Annie Johnson and her daughter, Sarah Jane, who are currently between residences. In a moment of heartfelt sympathy, Lora invites the Johnsons to spend the night at her small apartment. The next morning, Annie tends to the housework while Lora sleeps in, securing the new family dynamic. With Annie’s domestic assistance, Lora becomes a famous Broadway actress. Meanwhile, Annie tries to raise her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who desperately wants to be white. This version travels deeper into the issues of Sarah Jane’s internalized oppression; it takes the audience to the seedy nightclubs where she works after running away from home and inserts a scene where her white boyfriend beats her in an alley after learning that she is black. True to form, Imitation of Life (1959) still addresses issues of motherhood, capitalism and racism but does so through the eyes of an acclaimed, German-born, melodramatic director…

Read the entire review here.

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Crossing the Color Line: Racial Passing in American Literature

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-01-03 20:57Z by Steven

Crossing the Color Line: Racial Passing in American Literature

Wesleyan University
AMST 322 / ENGL 319
Fall 2015

Amy Cynthia Tang, Assistant Professor of English

Narratives of racial passing having long captivated readers and critics alike for the way in which they provocatively raise questions about the construction, reinforcement, and subversion of racial categories. This course will consider several examples of the “literature of passing” as it has been established as a category within African American literature alongside more ambiguously classified 20th-century narratives of ethnic masquerade and cultural assimilation as a way of exploring how literary and film texts invoke, interrogate, and otherwise explore categories of race, gender, class, and sexual identity.

Key texts will include James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Douglas Sirk’s film Imitation of Life, Richard Rodriguez’s memoir Hunger of Memory, Chang-Rae Lee’s novel A Gesture Life, and Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain.

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