Imitation of Life (1934) is a drama film directed by John M. Stahl, based on the novel of the same name by feminist and race activist Fannie Hurst. It stars Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, and Warren William.
The story is centered on two single mothers, Bea and Delilah, and their lives with their children, Jessie and Peola. Starting with their daughter’s childhood and ending with the girls in college, its central theme is how parents and the choices they make can affect their children, in both positive and negative ways.
The film crossed many boundaries for its time such as Louise Beavers’ role as Delilah, which was the first time in American cinematic history that a Black woman's problems were given great emotional weight in a major Hollywood motion picture.
The film dives into her effort as a single Black mother, her heartbreak after losing her daughter, how hard it is for people of color to discuss racism with their children, and how Black people were treated in general.
Due to its discussions on race, racism, and mixed-race passing, it made history and is on Time magazine’s list of The 25 Most Important Films on Race.
One notable scene is seen in the first ten minutes of the film when Bea and Delilah first meet. Delilah ends up on Astor Street instead of Astor Avenue and Bea tries to help by telling her Astor Avenue is only ten minutes away by cab.
Delilah responds with: “We have to walk…”. Bea offers her money in a show of white privilege and ignorance, thinking she means she doesn’t have fare and not that she isn’t allowed in a cab.
The plot is a fast-paced telling of Bea and Delilah’s journey from struggling financially, to starting a pancake restaurant together, to expanding their business to boxed pancake mix and ending up in New York’s high society.
Bea’s side of the story focuses on her falling in love with a man called Steven Archer, played by the charming Warren William (who also stars in the excellent Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)). As she and Steven’s relationship grows to the point where they consider marriage, her daughter comes home from college and instantly falls for her mother’s boyfriend.
Their remaining story centers on Bea’s choice on whether or not to proceed with her marriage and break her daughter’s heart, or call it off.
But what we’ll be talking about is Delilah’s side of the story with her daughter Peola.
Peola has always felt like an outcast stuck between worlds, her father was “very light-skinned” making her a very pale Black woman. Her drama starts at the beginning of the film when she’s still a child and runs home from school crying because Jessie called her “Black”.
She sobs and blames her mother for “making her this way” saying she wishes to just be like “all the other children”. Bea attempts to tell Jessie to apologize for hurting Peola, but Delilah stops her saying: “She has to learn to get used to it.”
Fast-forwarding, Peola is now a young woman who is struggling even harder with her identity and perception in society. Due to her skin tone, she’s often perceived as white until seen with her mother, leading to shocked whispers that hurt and disturb her.
To try to alleviate her dissonance and pain, Delilah offers to use the money from their business to send her to an all-Black school. Peola’s horrified at this, due to her lifelong struggle with accepting her own race. She refuses.
Delilah tells her to "quit battling it" and that her "head must be sore from beating it against a stone wall". She tells her daughter to be proud. God made her black. Accept it.
Peola ends up giving in and resigns herself to attending this college. But it doesn’t last long.
Delilah soon gets news that Peola ran away from her school and hasn’t been seen for days. Following leads, Delilah, accompanied by Bea, leave New York and find her working in a cigar shop in Virginia posing as a white woman.
Relieved, Delilah runs in and addresses her daughter. Peola pretends not to know her mother, pleading at the owner of the shop and its customers: "Do I look like I could be her daughter?"
Bea, offended at the hurt Peola is causing her mother, confirms her identity to the crowd and Peola runs.
Peola comes back home. She apologizes for denying knowing her mother, proceeding to explain her disappearance. She says she tried going to that school to please Delilah but couldn't bear it. She had to get away.
Delilah forgives her and beckons her closer. Peola refuses. She says she’s leaving.
"I want to go away and you can't see me, know me, claim me, or anything. Even if you pass me on the street, you'll have to pass me by."
To Delilah’s horror, Peola intends to completely separate herself from her family and community, lip-trembling and crying, she confesses that she knows it's wrong but that Delilah doesn’t understand how hard it is to “look white but be Black”.
Fredi Washington’s performance in this scene is absolutely heartwrenching. Her voice breaks, her body shakes, and she’s quite possibly the best actress in the entire film. She portrays the act of mixed-race passing for what it is: a difficult, painful decision.
Delilah then falls ill after the shock of losing her daughter. She spends a week with failing health, in bed and being cared for by a physician until she eventually passes away.
During her funeral (paid for and lavishly decorated by her lifelong friend Bea) Peola shows up horrified. Sobbing in the crowd, a nearby white woman asks her "Did you know her?" and Peola answers "Yes" eventually breaking into a shouted admission: "She was my mother!" and running from the crowd to the casket.
She openly embraces her race, holding her mother's casket, asking for her forgiveness, proudly stating that she's Delilah's daughter. Bea runs up, holds her, and escorts her to the family limousine. Nearly inconsolable, Peola weeps stating: “She only ever wanted the best for me.”
At the end of the movie, Peola decides to go back to the all-Black school and finish studying, no longer denying her race and honoring her mother’s wishes.
Delilah and Peola’s story was enormously impactful to Black audiences of the time. To put it in perspective, historian Anna Everett wrote that white audiences saw Peola’s mixed-race passing as a Black woman’s struggle to be white. Black audiences saw it as the rebellion of a Black woman trying to gain privileges only given to white people.
This story isn’t complete fiction as many people of color with mixed heritage attempted to pass as white in the early 1900s due to the Great Migration and the one-drop rule, so as to avoid the social constraints, racism, and judgment that they endured. This was portrayed in 2021’s Passing and its 1929 novel of the same name.
The actress that played Peola was the light-skinned, grey-eyed Fredi Washington, who had European ancestry mixed into her African American family. Her story was very similar in real life to the one shown here.
Mixed-race passing was very possible for Fredi Washington and she was often told that, but she only ever had once, while traveling through the south. She would pretend to be white to buy treats for her fellow Black performers at whites-only ice cream parlors.
Unlike Peola, Washington never entertained the thought of passing. Speaking on her character she said: "In "Imitation of Life", I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances, but I am not showing how I felt."
She elaborated on the topic of mixed-race passing further in 1949, telling reporters that she would only identify as Black "...because I'm honest, firstly, and secondly, you don't have to be white to be good. I've spent most of my life trying to prove to those who think otherwise...I am a Negro and I am proud of it."
Despite receiving critical acclaim and wowing both white and Black audiences, Washington didn’t get much work after “Imitation of Life”. Movie critics explained this saying that she was “too beautiful and not dark enough to play maids” but “too light-skinned to star in all-Black movies”. She was torn between worlds, much like Peola.
Washington ended up leaving Hollywood and acting behind her and spent the rest of her life in race activism, becoming a writer and working closely with Walter White, then president of the NAACP.
I think we’ll end on another meaningful quote of hers because the woman had some powerful statements in her time.
"You see I'm a mighty proud gal, and I can't for the life of me find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons. If I do, I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens.”
If you’d like to read more on mixed-race passing, check out Incluvie’s article The Black and White Metaphor in Passing. Or if you’re interested in more stunning Black history, read All Hail The Queen of Basketball, May She Reign in Peace…and Win An Oscar.