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Imitation of Life

The film Imitation of Life directed by John M. Stahl deals with important issues of its time that will now seem controversial such as the role of black servants in white families. There is honesty in the film that is represented as a true testament for its time in 1934. Delilah Johnson (played by Louise Beavers) is an unfavorable type of racial stereotype in that she plays a cheerful mammy, happily satisfied to spend her life tending to the needs of her employer, Beatrice “Bea”Pullman (played by Claudette Colbert). It is clear that she is playing a citizen of “lower class” with little to her name. Even though she has little, she does not care if she is paid, as she only wants a roof over her head and to work for someone. Her unwavering subservience was the key to her survival and providing care for her young daughter Peola. Some of the scenes show Delilah in a less than desirable position. Her family recipe for pancakes ends up being taken advantage of for Bea’s restaurant venture. Additionally, Delilah’s face is marketed in a fashion similar to Aunt Jemima. Though Bea includes Delilah in a 20 percent share of the restaurant’s profits, it is Bea who be who becomes successful off of Delilah’s recipe.

The concept of race is all too present throughout the film. In certain respects, one can understand why an 18-year-old Peola (played by Fredi Washington) would feel conflicted about her being Caucasian by appearance, but African American in terms of race. Given the state of how race relations in the 1930s were, it isn’t out of touch for someone of color to want to achieve the opportunities that others were granted without problem. Throughout the film, Peola is seen grappling with her heritage and finding it difficult to accept. In many scenes, she is shown upset and distraught. Notably, in the scene where her mother Delilah finds her working in a department store, one can’t help but feel hurt for Delilah as Peola openly denies her and is humiliated to be called out as an African American in front of customers at her job. Peola’s apparent rejection of her race and what others would think about her is somewhat connected to the perception of African Americans at the time.

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