Imitation of Life by Douglas Sirk portrays a complex relationship between a Black American mother and her fair skin daughter, Sarah Jane. Appearance is a central theme throughout the story. Sarah Jane can “pass” as white because of her fair skin but despises the fact that her mother is black. Unlike Sarah, her mother Annie accepts her fate and status dated by the society, Sarah Jane challenges the status quo and adventures out to pursue a whole new world for herself.
Sarah Jane seizes every opportunity to break away from her beloved mother to live (or perhaps imitate) a life that offers equal opportunities in the society. For example, the scene in the motel room is helpful in portraying the love and conflict between Sarah Jane and Annie. In this scene, Annie accepts that the highest expression of love for her daughter is to let her go. The scenes in the motel room are carefully constructed to show the love and tension between Sarah Jane and her mother Annie.
Sarah Jane does not want to be seen together with her mother and fears that her coworker will show up at any moment. Determined to break away from her mother, Sarah Jane then picks up her suitcase to start packing. With the wall barrier, the frame appears to be a split between Annie on one side and Sarah Jane on the other. The division creates a visual sense of boundary and confrontation. The next shot captures a turning point when Sarah Jane comes to see the reflection of herself and her mother’s through the mirror.
The image in the mirror symbolizes the central concerns of appearance and identity in this story. Finally, I believe that the Annie-Sarah Jane relationship portrayed in the scene in the motel room is significant and relevant because it offers a parallel to Lora and Susie’s relationship in the film. Beside race, Imitation of Life covers other issues such as family relationship, gender roles, and romance. The scene is symbolic as it reflects the societal attitude and prejudice against Black American in the 1950s.
It paints a picture of how some people define Blackness based on the color of one’s skin. This phenomenon surpasses time to the present days. For example, the late Michael Jackson was being criticized for changing his skin color to become white. Do we have a right to alter our own fate? If yes, then to what extent? Is it okay to sacrifice our own identity to pursue something of more value to us? The tension and conflict between social conformity and individual freedom are vast. There is no easy solution. I think it remains a personal choice.