Imitation of Life – Douglas Sirk – There was a sound bite on the front of the DVD which read ‘supreme soap opera’ and, in the best way possible, this is pretty close. The film’s melodrama follows an aspiring blond actress, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter, when relatively broke and struggling for work they meet Annie – a black woman (Juanita Moore) also trying to raise her child as a single mother. It is from here the plot takes its tragic and troubling heart (for it is a heart, an often saccharine and fluttering Hollywood sheen, that, if you can stomach, repays with a rewarding wealth of emotions … even if they are sometimes a tad cloying for my taste, I could appreciate the merit in this glamorous soup!). Annie’s daughter, having lighter skin than her mother becomes distressingly enthralled with the notion of being ‘white’…or, perhaps, more painfully for her mother (and for us, as an audience) not being black. From refusing to play with a black doll, to later being so horrified by her mother’s appearance at her school that she races out of her class and into the snowy wilderness of outside.
The more nuanced tragedy reveals itself through Lora and Annie’s relationship, which while acting under the guise of friendship, as Annie unquestioningly becomes her maid, treads uncomfortably upon a naturalised injustice – in which Lora neglects to really ever learn anything about Annie. Who, for a large majority of the film is demoted to being an amiable, background matriarch – as we are meanwhile cajoled into the acting dreams of Lora’s Hollywood seduction. It is this narrative strand that, in its initial appearance (Lora and her child appearing first in the film) lures the audience into becoming complicit in the racially problematic assumption of deciding this to be the film’s unproblematic centre. Whereas it soon becomes clear the film is much more than this misleading and candied expectation.
Not only an anguished confrontation of racial inequalities but, transcending questions of race, also a surprisingly fraught and upsetting portrait of motherhood. Like the glittering diamonds of its credits sequence – there is a deceptively sugared swoon to this sour hysteria. 7.5/10