“Ya just gotta learn to take it.” These words, spoken by Louise Beavers as Delilah in the 1934 filmed version of Imitation of Life, perfectly sum up the lot of the characters of Delilah and her daughter, tragic mulatto extraordinaire, Peola.
The film, based on the 1933 story by Fannie Hurst, follows the turn of fortune in the lives of a once down-on-her-luck widow, played with pluck by Claudette Colbert and domestic pancake genie Delilah, played by Beavers. The women share more than a need for money, however, they also share the fact that they are single mothers, each trying to raise a daughter. If that were the whole story, it might make for a light diversion, but as it stands the film is much, much more and is one of the better melodramas of the period.
Louise Beavers, who should go down in history as the first come to life Negro spiritual, portrays Delilah with all the bowed head, soft voiced ‘Mammy-ism’ she can muster, and here, she is used to great effect. Her portrayal is offensive in many respects, but because the character is given an actual storyline that does more than simply push along the story of the white characters, she is notable for whatever dignity with which she manages to imbue the character.
However it is then appearance of Fredi Washington forty minutes into the film that we are given the first real tension and conflict of the story. Rather than the tantrums of a misunderstood child, Washington shows us a Peola who has the full, lived experience of an extremely light skinned woman who longs to fit into one world and who rejects the possibility of fitting into another.
With possibly one of the most perfect castings to ever capture an accurate portrayal of an actual African-American who is light skinned enough to realistically pass for white, Fredi Washington, enlivens the sad character of Peola with a sense of anger, confusion and disgust with her situation that she is easily the best part of the film. In hindsight, what makes the casting even more perfect is that Washington, in her real life, was such a fierce and staunch advocate for Civil Rights for black people, that her portrayal of a woman trapped in cage of self-hatred is a revelation. This is a good thing, since the dumb, almost childlike portrayal of Delilah by Beavers, whose only wish in life is for a grand funeral, is sometimes anger making in its earnestness.
While the Delilah/Peola storyline is a co-plot, it is one of the first instances in film where a black character’s storyline carries equal weight with that of the white characters. This should be a good thing, but since the storyline consists of maternal difficulties, a delusional child, a life of servitude and death, I’m not so sure that this is a positive net gain.