Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life has a way of sneaking up on you. At first, it looks kind of uncomfortably dated with Annie as a classic Loyal Servant stereotype, but that all turns out to be a Trojan Horse: by the time the first half ends, it becomes clear that all of Lora’s petty problems were a distraction from the epic tragedy building in the background. Instead, she becomes not just a stereotype but the soul of the film, and Sirk tackles the normally ignored concept of internalized racism with brass balls: this is the only time I’ve ever heard the n-bomb in a Hayes-approved film, and trust me, it really does hit like an atom bomb. And he isn’t shy about bringing slavery into it either, which gives the line “You don’t own me” a whole new meaning.
There are so many quietly heartbreaking moments here: Sara Jane silently mouthing “mama” as she leaves her motel room or Lora’s nice white lady facade breaking when she realizes she really doesn’t know Annie at all… That second one gets to the heart of the subversion he’s known for as he deconstructs what seems to be a positive relationship between the black and white families, and shows just how shallow the bond really is. Even when Annie’s on her deathbed, Suzie still treats her like an advice machine, and Lora offhandedly dismisses the connection between their daughters with “this is serious.” The character Annie most reminded me of was The Giving Tree, pouring out this selfless, self-destructive grace to people who don’t deserve it. I’m making it sound like the movie is all about her and it isn’t but that’s one of its strengths: that Dickensian ability to give each character a full story without anything ever feeling like it gets short shrift.
And Sirk’s subtle visual cues are absolutely genius, like the use of contrasting primary colors to differentiate the characters and their roles. And then there’s the way he makes the men in Lora’s life loom controlling over the camera or lurk uneasily in the frame, even the ones who will eventually become her love interest. A masterpiece if there ever was one.