Beth’s Classic Film Club: Imitation of Life

You know, race is a pretty fucked up subject. Like, here is this thing that we invented as a species, that has no basis in science, and yet, we use it as an excuse to literally rape and murder and otherwise subjugate people. It holds so much power over us. And we think of ourselves now as living in a post-racial utopia for a minute and then bam, another unarmed black kid gets killed by a scared white dude. What the fuck, man.

You know who else thought they were handling race issues just fine but actually weren’t? The people in our next film, Imitation of Life. Which version, you ask–the one from the 1930’s with Claudette Colbert or the one from the 50’s with Lana Turner? Both, of course. They have the same basic plot: poor single white mom meets poor single black mom. White mom hires black mom as her servant. White mom gets rich and has arguments with her grown daughter over a man they both love. Black mom’s daughter is light skinned and passes as white, freaking out her black mom.

The whole plot is a shitshow of racial non-transcendence that is designed to make you feel totally skeeved out. You should not be watching this film to have a good time. You should be watching this film and saying “Seriously, did that actually just happen?” Yes, yes it did. And you know what’s truly awful? Most of that could easily still happen today. What race do we most closely associate with housekeepers and nannies today? Do their children struggle to have pride in their cultural heritage in the face of a society that relentlessly demands assimilation in order to succeed financially? It’s still happening, folks.

I personally prefer the Claudette Colbert version because it adds a layer of exploitation of the black woman that I think makes the film even more button-pushing to modern audiences. Colbert’s character gets rich by selling a product her servant invented and with her servant’s picture on it (think Aunt Jemima) and the servant only gets 20% of the profits. And of course, the servant keeps being a servant even when the company is a big success. What. The. Fuck.

Then again, I really love the 1950’s melodrama genre, and the Lana Turner version is a prime example of it. I mean, Turner is the queen of the 50’s melodrama. You need an emotionally damaged mom for a tearjerker? Call Lana Turner. (In real life, she was a good friend of Ava Gardner, who is my spirit animal.) And Susan Kohner, who plays the light skinned daughter, is amazing in this film. Did you know that Kohner’s mom was Mexican and her dad was Bohemian? So she’s literally a mixed-race woman portraying a different mixed-race woman passing as white.

Honestly? Rent both of them, and decide which one you prefer. I think they’re both movies that will make you feel and think things. Let me know which version you prefer in the comments!