Tag Archives: Classic

Imitation of Life

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“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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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Pinky

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Set in a backwoods Mississippi town in the 1940’s, “Pinky” tells the story of a light skinned black woman who returns to her birthplace amid questions, secrecy and complicated racial politics.
Patricia Johnson, or Pinky, as she is known by those in her hometown, has retuned to her roots after completing her nursing education in the North. While she is received joyously by her dark skinned grandmother, played by the remarkable Ethel Waters, her arrival is also fraught with questions regarding the conflict and embarrassment of her passing while away at school. Pinky is immediately shamed and made to repent, in a way, for the sin of passing by enduring difficulties that would have been non-issues had she been a white woman.
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Pinky, whose name can only be a reference to the ‘pinkness’ of her skin, is thrust into situations in her town where she is, at first, taken for a white woman, treated with decency, and when her true background is revealed, then treated with hostility and violence. She goes from protected to detained by the police when she is found to be black, and her body is violated by those same police and other white men who see her only as a thing to be disrespected and abused.
It is no wonder, then, that Pinky decided to pass for white as soon as she had escaped the clutches of the ultra racist South for the somewhat less obviously racist haven of the North. While the audience can easily understand Pinky’s motives for passing, what is more subversive to the plot, is that Pinky herself knows why she has done what she’s done. She hasn’t even de-boarded her train northward before she has passed, and while she is shamed for it later, she is also aware of the caste system that she is both victim and beneficiary of.
If there is a weakness in the film, it is in the casting of Jeanne Crain as Pinky. It was perhaps an unavoidable dilemma, as the two black actresses of the time who were considered ‘black, but not too black’, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, were, in this instance, too dark skinned to believe as passing for white. This left producer Daryl F. Zanuck with the choice of Crain, who, as a white woman, lacks both the frame of reference and internal turmoil to contend with the subject matter. This practice was not new, nor has it abated, but it is perhaps especially contentious in a film specifically, and not tangentially, about race.
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Although not a weakness, but of note, is the character of Pinky herself. Whether by design or by acting and directing choices, Pinky, with her light skin and all, is a member of Strong Black Woman club. Through her struggle, and there must be a struggle,  to obtain justice for herself and uphold the pride with which she has been imbued, she is also made to uplift her entire race. In the end, Pinky, by her proud affirmation of her true identity, has become the “credit” to her race she was always meant to be.

Band of Angels

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“Band of Angels”, the 1957 Raoul Walsh film starring Clark Gable and Yvonne de Carlo is  strange tale.  It owes no small debt to the novel Iola Leroy, by Frances Harper, as it shares more than a few plot points. But the film, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, is also a departure for a few reasons.

Amantha, like Iola, is a privileged young woman of light skin, so light as to pass for the skin of a white woman. Both Amantha and Iola are the “issue” of slave mothers, who were the result of seemingly loving and fully fashioned relationships with their white fathers. Both young women are educated away from home and both are informed of their slave status after the deaths of their respective, beloved, white fathers. And both women are suddenly removed from their lives as free, white people and turned over to lives of instant slavery. But here, most of the similarities end.

 

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In the matter of the tragic mulatta, Amantha Starr, does not fit. In fact, Amantha’s tragedy seems to be that she is only momentarily removed from her whiteness and status. She is, however, soon enough restored, in a way, and resigns herself to her fate in her new home with her benefactor, Mr. Hamish Bond.

 

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In the confines of the idyllic New Orleans lodgings of Hamish Bond, Amantha, Rau-Ru and the household of seemingly content ‘slaves’ go about their lives not terribly fazed by the impending war, their lot in life or much else. For a film that opens with such a strong statement regarding slavery and the precarious nature of those individuals with vague light skinned privilege, it takes a turn into an almost fantasy of Beauty and The Beast proportions following the love story of Amantha and Hamish.

 

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The star crossed lovers are thwarted, in epic fashion, by the arrival of the Civil War, a scandalous secret and the vendetta of Hamish’s “high stepper,” Rau-Ru.

Rau-Ru, for his part, is fixed on righting the wrong committed by Hamish in exhibiting his “kindness.” It is the the sort of bleak, misshapen “kindness”, which comes to light later on, and makes for a complexity of character for Bond and Rau-Ru which is not afforded the other characters in the film.

In the end, however, it is the trope of the ‘Magical Negro’, in the form of the previously angry Rau-Ru, that takes hold and any thoughts of vendettas are put aside so that the white people can ride, literally, off into the sunset.

What starts off as a promising story exploring miscegenation and it’s repercussions, ends as a fairly typical love story uncomplicated by any of that messy race stuff. And perhaps that’s as it should be.