Mammy by Another Name: A Review of “The Imitation of Life (1959)”
Anyone who knows me, knows about my love for movies. I have had a deep love for movies since my collection first began as a child, and both have only grown larger since then. My passion for film extends across multiple genres and periods and, with age, I have developed a particularly deep appreciation for movies of the Golden Age. It is this interest that influenced me to watch the acclaimed 1959 version of The Imitation of Life.
I came to own The Imitation of Life nearly one year ago as an impulse buy from the $5 bin at Walmart. Due to a lack of time and general procrastination, I didn’t actually watch it until last week. I walked into my first viewing knowing very little about this movie. At its core, I knew that the plot involved a Black girl who passed for white, and rejected her blackness as much as the mother from whom she inherited it. This was intriguing, and I made it a priority to watch the movie before my return to work in the New Year. I began my experience optimistically, but as the story unfolded onscreen, I thought less of the film’s renown and instead grew extremely annoyed at the portrayal of one of its key characters: Annie.
Annie is a Black widow and single mother to her daughter, Sarah Jane (the girl who wants to be white). Through sheer coincidence, Annie meets a white widow (aspiring actress Lora Meredith) after watching the woman’s daughter when they get separated on the beach. By the end of the afternoon, Annie is employed as Lora’s housekeeper and moves into her home with her daughter in tow. The film focuses on the challenges faced by both mothers as one woman finds professional success, and their daughters grow up under the supervision of the other.
While I can appreciate the audacity one must have had to create this film exploring issues of race, class, and gender during the Civil Rights Movement, I feel that The Imitation of Life’s presentation of Annie is nothing more than the creation of another mammy.
Fans may think that my assessment is harsh, but let’s unpack the reasons I came to this conclusion.
First and foremost, the character Annie was done a great disservice by the simple fact that she has a very limited identity. We know nothing of her backstory other than that she is a widow with a child, and doesn’t have much in terms of a job or money. In case you were wondering, the struggling single Black mother archetype is nothing new. Who is Annie outside her circumstances? While Lora is out here trying to make it onto Broadway, does Annie have any hopes and dream of her own? Does she have interests outside working and trying to teach her child self-love? Where is Annie’s extended family, and why are she and Sarah Jane basically homeless? We never find out.
Second, while there is clearly some level of friendship between she and Lora, the white privilege at play still makes Annie the typical faithful servant whose needs go mostly unnoticed. She is surrounded by white women—wannabe and otherwise—who reap the benefits of her servitude, but never really pay attention to her as another human being. Instead, they are all so wrapped up in their own self-made problems that they don’t pause to give a damn about what Annie may be going through. For example, Annie seems to be headed to death’s door at one point, and Susie (Lora’s daughter) is so focused on Lora reclaiming her man outside the window, that she doesn’t even check and see if Annie is still alive before leaving the room. Annie could have bitten the dust right in front of her, and no one would have known until she didn’t get up to make breakfast the next morning. This is typical treatment of a mammy figure: white folks “love” them until their own personal dramas take precedence over putting that love into action when, and where, it counts. The lack of attention paid to Annie is even more obvious in one conversation scene between she and Lora.
Lora: It never occurred to me that you had many friends. You never have any visit you.
Annie: I know lots of people. Oh, hundreds.
Annie: I belong to the Baptist church. And I belong to several lodges too.
Lora: I didn’t know.
Annie: Miss Lora, you never asked.
How do you become “friends” and share a home with someone for over 10 years, yet it never occurs to you that they have a life outside of being there for you? Even above that, how do you allow a decade to pass without even thinking to ask? It’s the same reason Annie calls her friend “Miss” Lora: white privilege. Lora seemed like a nice lady for the most part, but among her flaws was one held by many other privileged white people; she was so busy gaining from her token Black friend, that she never stopped to actually get to know her.
The last reason I feel that The Imitation of Life creators did nothing more for Annie than make her another mammy figure, is because on the rare occasion that she was given a moment to express an issue she faced, her problems were dismissed by her white leader. At one point in the story, Annie’s daughter runs off and makes every effort to disconnect from her mother so she can successfully pass for white. This leaves Annie understandably heartbroken. Around the same time, Lora is dealing with the realization that her own daughter is in love with her longtime boyfriend. When Annie remarks that she feels like she failed as a mother, Lora interrupts, “Oh, Annie, you couldn’t have been a better mother to Sarah Jane. That was something different, this is a very real problem,” she continues, as if Annie being disowned by her daughter is minimal. In my opinion, this scene is much bigger than two characters fretting over who has it worse.
This scene is monumental because it showcases a huge problem Black Americans face in real life: the dismissal of Black issues by white people, especially when both face challenges at the same time.
Slave mothers were told to ignore the selling of their families and children because Master had to save the plantation somehow. Today, we are told that we need to take a break from shouting “Black Lives Matter!” and instead focus on addressing things like the opioid addiction “crisis.” Side note: dont you just love how white issues are often deemed crises, while similar Black issues are viewed as crimes? In this country, white problems and interests have always been placed above Black ones. The disparity becomes even more apparent when speaking of issues faced separately by Black and white women. Annie’s story is no different.
Despite my critique, The Imitation of Life is not the worst film I’ve seen. I can at least be proud that actress Juanita Moore received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of Annie. I can also say that the movie did show the importance of self-love and parental love. I’ll even admit that I cried at the end of the film, however, it wasn’t in the name of endearment. It had a lot to do with Mahalia Jackson’s beautifully haunting performance of “Troubles of the World” during the funeral scene (see below, or Click Here). I was angry that Annie gave so much love to others who never returned it the same way. She spent her life pouring into people, including her daughter, who never poured anything back into her. At the root of it all, she deserved so much more in terms of treatment and character development. Like countless other Black women throughout time, Annie was dealt the short end of the stick. By limiting her identity and amount of reciprocated love, the creators made Annie into another mammy figure in film. Quite frankly, I am not here for it.
Be Critical. Be Kultured.