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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Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century exhibition, HOME, reviewed by Şima İmşir Parker

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United Kingdom on 2016-06-16 18:26Z by Steven

Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century exhibition, HOME, reviewed by Şima İmşir Parker

The Manchester Review
Manchester, England
May 2016

Şima İmşir Parker, Graduate Teaching Assistant
University of Manchester

Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century, Home, 30 April 2016 – 3 July 2016

“The melodramatic body is a body seized with meaning” writes Peter Brooks in “Melodrama, Body, Revolution.” Body is not only a sight branded with meanings and symbolism, but also a sight where resistance becomes possible through the gestures and mimics where what is repressed comes back to life. Melodramatic bodies are sights of both stigma as well as expression and resistance, something that the new Home exhibition Imitation of Life: Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century successfully brings forth by revealing the politics on and of the body, more specifically through the representations of race, gender and sexuality in the post-digital world in which we live.

The exhibition opens with Sophia Al-Maria’s new work, Scarce New Flowers, a photographic series of real products, “facial whitening creams” sold in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa with instructions only in Mandarin and Arabic. With the images of real boxes with women’s faces on them growing, being repeated and distorted, the product itself becomes melodramatic and hyperbolic, acting as a stark reminder of on-going racial stereotypes (and passing) that exist within a cross-cultural spectrum.

Passing as white is a subject widely discussed around Fanny Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and its later movie adaptations, the work that gives its title to the exhibition. The novel was published in 1933. Almost immediately after its publication, in 1934, its first movie adaptation, directed by John Stahl, made it to the big screen. The life of the story however was not limited to one adaptation. In 1959, an iconic name for melodramas, Douglas Sirk, made another adaptation of the novel. This version, although not as loyal to the original story as John Stahl’s version, gained far greater popularity. The story, narrating two women’s struggle to take care of themselves and their daughters, was revealing of racial and gender stereotypes by portraying the black maid (Delilah/Annie) as the caregiving “mama” whose daughter (Peola/Sarah Jane) passes as white and the white single mother (Bae/Lora) who chooses a successful career at the cost of not providing care for her daughter and not uniting with her loved one. In 2002 Todd Haynes remade the movie, this time shifting the focus from race to homosexuality…

Read the entire review here.

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Two Takes on ‘Imitation of Life’: Exploitation in Eastmancolor

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-05-17 23:22Z by Steven

Two Takes on ‘Imitation of Life’: Exploitation in Eastmancolor

The New York Times
2015-05-14

J. Hoberman

“I would have made the picture just for the title,” Douglas Sirk said of his last Hollywood production, “Imitation of Life” (1959). But, newly released on Blu-ray by Universal, along with its original version, directed in 1934 by John M. Stahl, the movie is far more than an evocative turn of phrase.

This tale of two single mothers, one black and the other white — and of maternal love, exploitation and crossing the color line — is a magnificent social symptom. Both versions were taken from the 1933 best seller by Fannie Hurst, a generally maligned popular writer if one whose novels, the historian Ann Douglas notes in “Terrible Honesty,” her study of Jazz Age culture, constitute “a neglected source on the emergence of modern feminine sexuality.”

Mr. Stahl’s “Imitation of Life” movie was certainly the “shameless tear-jerker” that the New York Times reviewer Andre Sennwald called it, as well as a prime example of the melodramatic mode known in the Yiddish theater as “mama-drama.” But it was not without progressive intent and, released during the second year of the New Deal, addressed issues of race, class and gender almost head-on.

The white protagonist, Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), is a not-quite-self-made businesswoman; the most complex and sympathetic character, Peola Johnson (Fredi Washington), is a casualty of American racism, both institutionalized and internalized. Behind both is the self-effacing powerhouse known as Aunt Delilah (Louise Beavers), who is the light-skinned Peola’s black mother and the source of the secret recipe on which Bea founds her pancake empire — not to mention its smiling trademark.

Happily ripped off by her white partner for the rest of her life, Beavers embodies exploited African-American labor, something the movie acknowledges by giving her a funeral on the level of a state occasion. The real martyr, however, is Washington’s Peola. The film historian Donald Bogle called her “a character in search of a movie” — but the tragic mulatto is the only part Hollywood would allow this accomplished and politically aware actress to play. In effect, she dramatizes her own segregated condition on screen…

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Ming Wong’s Imitations

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2014-12-20 17:59Z by Steven

Ming Wong’s Imitations

Transit: A Journal of Travel, Migration, and Multiculturalism in the German-speaking World
Volume 9, Number 2 (2014) Special Topic: Contemporary Remediations of Race and Ethnicity in German Visual Cultures
32 pages

Barbara Mennel, Associate Professor of English
University of Florida

The article “Ming Wong’s Imitations” analyzes the installation Life of Imitation, created by visual artist Ming Wong for the Singapore Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. Life of Imitation restages a key scene from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life, in which the African American character Annie visits her daughter Sarah Jane who is passing as white. In Wong’s restaging three male actors from different ethnic groups in Singapore reenact the scene, but switch roles at every cut. The article traces the shifts from the original literary source, Fannie Hurst’s 1933 Imitation of Life to John M. Stahl’s 1934 film of the same title to Sirk’s version. Emphasizing melodrama’s organizing structure of “too late,” I show how Sirk shifted the melodramatic emphasis from the white mother/daughter pair’s romantic conflict to the African American mother/daughter pair’s racial conflict. Addressing the question whether such a shift implies a progressive politics, I turn to the contentious discussion of Sirk’s earlier film work in Weimar and Nazi Germany, pointing to ideological and formal continuities.

In contrast to these significant shifts in the different instantiations of the text, I propose that the different versions share the subordination and disavowal of ethnic difference in order to construct a racial binary, which then becomes the setting of the passing narrative organized around the ‘tragic mulatta’. I illustrate my argument with the instances of ethnic passing of the writers, directors, and actors involved in the different versions of the text. However, I also show the appeal of racial passing narratives can have for a gay camp imagination, identification, and appropriation. I conclude the article with a discussion of Wong’s double move in Life of Imitation of returning ethnic bodies that have been excised from the original diegesis to their significance and appropriating the gendered melodrama through cross-dressing. After a survey of the term “remediation” as it emerged from the discussion of new media, I show that Wong’s piece belongs to a group of works by visual artists who remake film in digital media in the environment of the art space. I conclude with reading the effect of rotating the actors at each cut, which does not subvert spatial and temporal continuity, but challenges spectators’ perception of ethnicity and gender, and produces unstable identities.

Read the entire article here.

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Mammy versus mulatta: A rhetorical analysis of the act of passing and the influence of controlling images in Fannie Hurst’s “Imitation of Life”

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2011-10-10 20:34Z by Steven

Mammy versus mulatta: A rhetorical analysis of the act of passing and the influence of controlling images in Fannie Hurst’s “Imitation of Life”

Arizona State University
May 2010
189 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3407107
ISBN: 9781109743265

Allison Parker

A Dissertation Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy

Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel, Imitation of Life, and the two movies that followed in 1934 and 1959, address the issue of racial passing in a way that no text ever has before. The theme of Imitation of Life is imitation, and as a result, it lends itself to a discussion of race performativity. Imitation of Life is the first text to juxtapose the mammy character with the tragic mulatto character, and this makes it conducive to studying the category of race and how race performativity functions. In addition, instead of focusing exclusively on passing, this analysis focuses more specifically on the way that resistance to (or condemnation of) passing, mainly through the power of confession, produces a specific mode of performativity.

Each of the versions of Imitation of Life is analyzed separately in order to use the specific version of the text to examine not only how the mores of the time affect the outcome of the story to contextualize each story within its respective time period, but also to examine how each of the characters is constructed in order to evaluate the relationships between black and white women living in the same household. The focus is on the specific features of the mammy and the mulatto characters–their history, their attributes, and their significant features, in order to understand how they work in context and to understand their significance in terms of race performativity. Finally, an examination of the category of race in terms of performative reiteration is presented. Scenes from the book and the two films are scrutinized in an attempt to provide a vehicle to understand the means by which racial norms function. These sections work together to examine the condemnation of passing in Imitation of Life through the lens of race as a speech act. Imitation of Life is a passing narrative that is a crucial text for assisting theorists in understanding the complicated features of race performativity.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • PREFACE
  • CHAPTER 1 REVIEW OF LITERATURE
    • Introduction and Scope
    • Theoretical Approach
    • Organization of Research
    • Concluding Remarks
  • CHAPTER 2 THE 1933 NOVEL
    • Fannie Hurst: Racial Activist
    • Hurston and Hurst
    • The Conflicts in Imitation of Lite
    • A Warning for Ambitious Womem
    • Aunt Jemima: The Most Famous Mammy
    • The Influence of Zora Neale Hurston
    • Delilah—the Ultimate Mammy
    • Peola—the Tragic Mulatto
    • Peola’s Passing
    • Critical Reception and Debate
  • CHAPTER 3 THE 1934 FILM
    • The Plot Thickens
    • The Embodiment of Miscegenation
    • From Page to Screen
    • The Subservient Mammy Stereotype Continues
    • An Updated Bea
    • An Updated Peola
    • Critical Reception
    • Hurston, Hughes, Morrison, and hooks Respond
  • CHAPTER 4 THE 1959 FILM
    • Lana’s Imitation of Life
    • Colorblind Casting?
    • Imitation in Imitation of Life
    • Starring Sarah Jane
    • The Rhinelander Case
    • Controlling Images
  • CHAPTER 5 RACE PERFORMATIVITY
    • Austin, Derrida, Butler, and Performativity
    • Foucault and Confession
    • Assumptions of Whiteness and the Contradictions of Race
    • Judith Butler and Imitation of Life
    • The Punishment for Passing
    • Mammy Versus Mulatto
    • Conclusion
  • WORKS CITED

Purchase the dissertation here.

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Picturizing Race: Hollywood’s Censorship of Miscegenation and Production of Racial Visibility through “Imitation of Life”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Live Events, United States on 2010-10-25 22:20Z by Steven

Picturizing Race: Hollywood’s Censorship of Miscegenation and Production of Racial Visibility through “Imitation of Life”

Genders: Presenting Innovative Work in the Arts, Humanities and Social Theories
Issue 27 (1998)

Susan Courtney, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies
University of South Carolina

“A Case Very Near the Borderline”

Hollywood’s Production Code explicitly banned “miscegenation” from the American screen for nearly thirty years. The files of the Production Code Administration (PCA) which document the interpretation of that ban, however, demonstrate the PCA censors’ utter confusion as to the meaning of the miscegenation clause they were charged to enforce. That confusion is nowhere more apparent than in the PCA’s file on Imitation of Life (1934), a project the PCA originally rejected on the grounds that it “violate[d] the Code clause covering miscegenation, in spirit, if not in fact.” What is strikingly odd about the PCA’s original ruling in this case, however, is that while the clause of the Code that forbade miscegenation defined it as a “sex relationship between the white and black races,” no such “sex relationship” was “in fact” at issue in Imitation of Life. Indeed, like Fannie Hurst’s best-selling novel on which the script was based, the melodrama was far more concerned with relationships among black and white women than with any heterosexual relationships. Specifically, the film’s plot follows the rise to fortune of a white widow on the profits of her black maid’s pancake recipe, and is primarily centered around the relationships among these two single mothers, Bea Pullman and Delilah, and their respective daughters, Jessie and Peola. While the film shows us no heterosexual “sex relationship” between whites and blacks, the considerable extent to which Bea and Delilah function as a couple might invite us to read the relationship between these women as a “sex relationship” of its own. Delilah cooks, cleans and rears Bea’s child during the day and rubs her feet at night—the latter prompting Bea to sigh with pleasure while Delilah lectures her about the joys of passion Bea has yet to find with a man: “You need some loving honey child!” Yet as significant as Bea and Delilah’s relationship is to an understanding of the film, a reading of it as “miscegenation” seems to have been well beyond the sensibilities of the PCA censors who, in my experience, never considered “sex relationship” in anything but the most decidedly heterosexual of terms. Nevertheless, in a letter to Universal that supported (without clarifying) PCA Director Joe Breen’s nebulous interpretation of miscegenation, Will Hays, Breen’s boss, expressed the PCA’s “considerable worry” on the subject and urged the studio to drop the project, lest it “develop into a case very near the borderline.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Two or Three Spectacular Mulatas and the Queer Pleasures of Overidentification

Posted in Articles, Arts, Gay & Lesbian, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2010-03-05 01:18Z by Steven

Two or Three Spectacular Mulatas and the Queer Pleasures of Overidentification

Camera Obscura
Volume 23, Number 1 67 (2008)
pages 113-143
DOI: 10.1215/02705346-2007-026

Hiram Perez, Assistant professor of English
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York

Building on feminist and queer scholarship on the relationship of film spectatorship to subjectivity, this essay conjectures subaltern spectatorships of the two US film adaptations of Fannie Hurst‘s 1933 novel Imitation of Life as a means of tracing the impossibly entangled discourses of race and sexuality, as well as of formulating “queer of color” as a kind of critical modality. Much like Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin functions, according to Sigmund Freud, as a cultural artifact prized in the form of an idealized beating fantasy by the Victorian (white) child, Imitation of Life stages for black and queer of color spectators originary traumas, in particular the formative (and compounded) experiences of racial and sexual shame. This essay seeks to reconcile the dissonant emotions evoked by Imitation of Life by reading the overidentifications of subaltern spectators with the figure of the tragic mulatto as instances of queer pleasure, both self-shattering and subject forming. In so doing, the essay pays tribute to that tragic mulatto as a spectacular mulata and diva. The spectacular mulata diva summons queer subjectivities; furthermore, she betrays larger national and colonial secrets, locating the racially hybrid genealogies of the classic diva and the universalized subject of psychoanalysis, heretofore presumably white (European).

Read or purchase the article here.

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Biracial Identity in the Media

Posted in Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations on 2009-10-03 19:02Z by Steven

Biracial Identity in the Media

Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
2008-05-22
18 Pages

Iliana Rucker
University of New Mexico

Many scholars have studied racial representations and have determined that images of racial groups we see on television shape the way we view these racial groups (Gorham, 1999; Tamborini & Mastro, 2000). This paper looks at how biracial/multiracial characters in film are represented and the language or lack of language used in the representation. In this paper, I examine the language in the films Imitation of Life and Get on the Bus, particularly regarding the biracial characters and how this racially mixed representation is either silenced or given a voice. The importance of this topic lies in the influential aspect of media.  There are very few biracial characters in the media. Their race plays into the message that they are sending, and I am curious in seeing who has the power to name their identity.

Read the entire paper here.

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