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How the Film Imitation of Life (1959) Critiqued 1950’s American Culture

Although dismissed by some critics as a melodramatic “tear-jerker”, Imitation of Life was a realistic critique of 1950’s American Culture in several ways. One of the main themes was racial identity and relations. The film used Sarah Jane’s feelings about her mixed ethnicity as a way to show attitudes toward African Americans in general. The main characters did not overtly judge her, however, they never really attempted to speak to Sarah Jane about her issues. Although it was clear that Sarah Jane was hurting inside, her problems were dismissed or ignored by the rest of the characters. Sarah Jane felt she had to remove herself from her mother, Annie, being black in order to be accepted by whites, and get where she wanted.  Lora also never regarded Annie as an equal. Even though Lora had become a prosperous actress, she continued to treat Annie and Sarah Jane as servants. Steve mentioned this to Annie in one scene, and Sarah Jane mocked a creole accent in another to highlight the matter.

Another of the film’s critiques of 1950’s American Culture was gender roles. All of the main female characters were portrayed as dramatic, delicate, and overexcited women. Both Annie and Lora were shown in different scenes crying in someone’s lap in utter distress. Lora had a meltdown because her agent tried to exploit her sexually, but she subsequently accepted the admiration of the writer. She maintained an unhappy relationship with the writer for many years to achieve success as an actress. There were also implications that women should be married and taken care of by their husbands. Lora’s career was a consistent reason why Steve would not marry her, and her lack of attention as a mother created problems which alienated her from her daughter. The film suggested that ambitious, career-minded women were a detriment to society.