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"The Bluest Eye" and "Imitation of Life" (1934): Variations on a Theme (Maggie Tarmey)
Contextual essay on the links between "The Bluest Eye" and the film adaptation of "Imitation of Life" (1934)
The following essay is written by student Maggie Tarmey, with edits by Amardeep Singh.
While the two appear quite different from one another, Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye and the 1934 film adaptation of Imitation of Life (directed by John Stahl and adapted from Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel of the same name) share many similarities. The Bluest Eye follows a young, dark-skinned Black girl in a small Ohio town in 1940. This girl, named Pecola Breedlove, wants to have blue eyes. It is her number one desire, and she believes that blue eyes, and only blue eyes, will make her beautiful. In contrast, Imitation of Life follows the story of a white widow, Bea, and her Black domestic servant, Delilah, as they start a business selling Delilah’s famous pancakes. Delilah has a daughter named Peola who is so light skinned that she passes for white. Peola struggles throughout the film with her identity. While these sound like two entirely different stories, they are really not so different. I would argue that these two works similar stories from rather different perspectives. The Bluest Eye tells the story of young girls struggling with colorism and white supremacy from a Black cultural perspective with a Black audience in mind, while Imitation of Life puts forward a sanitized, far less nuanced version of a similar narrative, one that is authored by white creators (Hurst and Stahl) and targeted to predominantly white audiences.
While Imitation of Life, at least the 1934 film adaptation of the story, has been largely forgotten today in favor of acclaimed director Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film adaptation, it had a large impact on Black audiences and Black communities at the time. This can be seen in author Zora Neale Hurston’s “Glossary of Harlem Slang,” which she published in 1942, less than ten years after both the original novel and first film adaptation was released. The word “peola,” (uncapitalized) appears in the glossary, and is defined as “a very white Negro girl” (Caputi 700). Another term that appears in the glossary is “pancake,” which is defined as “a humble type of Negro” (Caputi 702). In the original novel that Imitation of Life is based on, Delilah produces waffles, not pancakes. However, when the first film adaptation was released one year later, the original waffles were changed to pancakes. It is believed that this was an intentional move to invoke the alternate meaning of “pancake,” as Delilah’s character could be described as one. The racist imagery of the “Aunt Jemima” character had become popular starting in the late 19th century, and the shift to pancakes from waffles could also be an attempt to invoke that imagery and to have that character associated with Delilah (Caputi 702). This kind of racism on the silver screen was far from uncommon. Louise Beavers, the actress who portrayed Delilah, received much critical acclaim for her performance. Yet, she did not receive an Oscar nomination for her performance. This upset many people, and columnist Jimmy Fiddler wrote:
I also lament the fact that the motion picture industry has not set aside racial prejudice in naming actresses. I don't see how it is possible to overlook the magnificent portrayal of the Negro actress, Louise Beavers, who played the mother in Imitation of Life. If the industry chooses to ignore Miss Beavers' performance, please let this reporter, born and bred in the South, tender a special award of praise to Louise Beavers for the finest performance of 1934. (Stafford)
The film industry at this time was not many years removed from regularly having white actors in blackface in films. At this time, a Black film star had never been nominated for an Oscar award, and even though many thought that Louise Beavers deserved a nomination, she would not go on to be the first. That would instead go to actress Hattie McDaniel, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in the 1939 film adaptation of Gone with the Wind. She would go on to win that award, but it would take fifty years before a Black actress would win another Oscar for her performance
In the 1930s, some of the most overt racism such as white actors in blackface were less prevalent than it had been in the earlier decades, but of course, racism on the screen persisted. In these mainstream Hollywood studio films in the 1930s, there were five categories of Black stereotypes and controlling images that characters played by Black actors fit into:
- “The Black man colluding with white hegemony...known as the Uncle Tom”
- “The Black woman colluding with white hegemony...known as the mammy”
- “The ineffectual and lazy simpleton”
- “A character of mixed race ancestry who was inevitably doomed...known as the ‘tragic mulatto’”
- “The Black male as hypermasculine and dangerous” (Russell Sharman)
In Hollywood studio films, you would be hard-pressed to find a Black actor portraying a character that did not fall into one of these harmful stereotypes, and 1934’s Imitation of Life was no exception.
Two of these controlling images that appear in Imitation of Life are of the mammy figure and the tragic mulatto figure. The mammy figure, which Delilah’s character represents, is most simply described as “the faithful, obedient domestic servant” (Collins 80). The mammy image was originally created to justify the exploitation of Black women as house slaves, and later as domestic servants for white families. The controlling image of the mammy showcases the “ideal” relationship between white people and Black women: one of dominance by the white people and subservience by the Black women. This power dynamic shows that “even though she may be well loved and may wield considerable authority in her White ‘family,’ the mammy still knows her ‘place’ as an obedient servant. She has accepted her subordination” (Collins 80). This line by Collins is so powerful in part because it showcases the white family’s desire for complete dominance and control over their Black women domestic workers. An important note is that “mammy” also appears in Hurston’s “Glossary of Harlem Slang.” It is defined there as “a term of insult, never used in any other way by Negros” (Caputi 704).
There are two particular moments in the film where this power dynamic becomes clear. Perhaps the most obvious moment falls at the 54 minute mark in Imitation of Life. After a large party in the mansion owned by Bea and Delilah, the two women are relaxing in the living room. Bea and Delilah sit next to each other on a couch, and Bea removes her high heeled shoes after the long night. In response, Delilah encourages Bea to put her feet in her lap so that she can rub and massage them, to make Bea feel better. Now, on the very surface, this may not appear like much--especially since Delilah initiated and encouraged the foot massage, without expecting (or getting) anything in return. However, this is a prime example of how the controlling image of the mammy figure portrays the ideal relationship between white people and Black women. Not only does Delilah behave in a subservient way to Bea, her white counterpart, but she actually initiates this submissive behavior. This is such an ideal relationship in the eyes of white individuals because not only does Delilah accept her subordination as a Black woman, but she encourages it as well.
The second moment falls shortly after the first, and is at the 58 minute mark in the film. From the white gaze the film was created in, white audiences would view Bea and Delilah as relatively equal. They were business associates, lived in the same home, and got wealthy together, as a team. However, even once the two have become incredibly wealthy from the pancake business, the exploitation of Delilah is still apparent. At the 58 minute mark in the film, Bea and Delilah are having a conversation in what appears to be the lobby of their home (on the main floor), and both characters say that they will be going off to bed. Instead of a cut, the camera remains still as the two women walk to their respective bedrooms. In this still, Bea is shown walking up the stairs, but Delilah is shown walking down the stairs. Since their conversation appears to have taken place on the main floor, the first floor, it seems as if Delilah’s living space is in the basement of their large home, while Bea’s living space is upstairs. While nothing is said, and the only sounds are of the women’s footsteps, it is evident that this brief moment indicates that even if the two women appear to be partners, Bea is the white superior and Delilah can only ever be relegated to the well loved, but ever subordinate, mammy figure.
The controlling image of the tragic mulatto figure also appears in Imitation of Life, represented by Peola’s character. Jane Caputi cites Judith Berzon’s definition of the tragic mulatto, which reads:
This figure is usually a product of the white man’s imagination and often expresses his deepest (usually unspoken) fantasies about the largest marginal group in our society: specifically, his assumption that the mixed blood yearns to be white and is doomed to unhappiness and despair because of this impossible dream...While Black novelists have employed the stereotype in order to gain sympathy from white readers for their ‘black’ characters, the tragic mulatto character is much more likely to appear in white-authored mulatto fiction. (Caputi 707)
With the original novel version of Imitation of Life having been written by a white woman author, and then the 1934 film version being directed by a white man, this analysis of the tragic mulatto figure checks out. This is a white perspective of what life must be like for mixed race individuals, because the assumption is that no one would ever want to be Black, only white. Caputi also writes that the writings about the tragic mulatto characters “depicts a ‘civil war’ waging in the mind and body of the mulatta between her Black (savage, sexual) blood and her white (intelligent, refined, beautiful) blood” (Caputi 707). Peola’s character development and struggles are centered around this internal conflict that she holds, where she struggles to establish her own personal identity.
At the 26 minute mark in the film, there is a powerful scene that portrays Peola as the tragic mulatto figure. At this time in the film, Peola and Jessie are both quite young, and around elementary school-aged. The dialogue from this scene reads as follows:
Peola: I’m not Black, I’m not Black, I won’t be Black! She called me Black, Jessie called me that!
Delilah: You might as well learn to take it.
Bea: You go on and apologize to Peola right this minute!
Delilah: No, no, no Miss Bea. Don’t make her apologize. There ain’t no good in that.
Peola: You! It’s because you’re Black! You made me Black! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t be Black!
Bea: Jessie, how could you say such a cruel, mean thing to Peola?
Jessie: I didn’t mean anything.
Delilah: Oh, it ain’t her fault Miss Bea. And it ain’t yours and it ain’t mine. I don’t know rightly where the blame lies. It can’t be all the Lord’s. It’s got me puzzled.
The scene then fades to black after Delilah’s final line. This scene shows how even at a very young age, that Peola is acutely aware of her racial identity and what it means to be Black in the United States. Something that is also fascinating about this scene is Bea’s insistence that Jessie apologizes to Peola for calling her Black. Peola is Black: Delilah, her mother, is clearly Black, and Delilah mentioned earlier in the film how Peola’s father was Black as well, albeit very light-skinned. Bea is positively horrified that Jessie, a young child, would refer to Peola’s racial identity at all, and instead treats it as if it is a shameful thing. If the audience did not know that Jessie had called Peola “Black,” her reaction makes it appear as if Jessie called her a slur. Bea, a white woman, associates Blackness with shame and as if it is something very bad, which Peola has clearly already internalized at her very young age. Delilah’s final line in this scene is the most telling of all, when she says “I don’t know rightly where the blame lies.” Not only does Bea, a white woman, see Blackness as something wrong and shameful, but when Delilah talks about searching for who to “blame” for the mere existence of their Blackness, she too makes it sound like a death sentence. How else is Peola supposed to feel if even her own Black mother appears to find Blackness to be something terrible? This scene encapsulates Peola as an example of a tragic mulatto figure.
Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye tackles similar topics to Imitation of Life, but from a different perspective. This novel is set between 1940-1941, not long after the release of the film. The young girls in the novel are also of elementary school age, just like Peola was in the previously referenced scene. One of the young girls is named Maureen Peal, who is described as “a high yellow dream child with...sloe green eyes, something summery in her complexion” (Morrison 62). “High yellow” is a term that is often used to describe light-skinned Black people. She was also described as having “enchanted the entire school” (Morrison 62), and that both white and Black children adored her. The other three young girls in the novel (Claudia, Freida, and Pecola) are described as being very dark skinned girls. Claudia and Freida are quite jealous of the attention that Maureen gets from everyone, and they “looked hard for flaws to restore our equilibrium” (Morrison 63). They recognize that they stand on unequal ground against Maureen, and that they had flaws that brought them down. These flaws, however, are not identified by the girls as character flaws. Instead, they searched for ways to bring down her appearance, and do things like imagine her with a dog tooth, or six fingers on each hand. At this young age, they have recognized that Maureen is treated like royalty for her looks, and because she fits into many traditionally white beauty standards, that they too should aspire towards a kind of whiteness.
Pecola Breedlove, another one of the young Black girls in The Bluest Eye, is described as having extremely dark skin. She is considered to be incredibly ugly by the other young children, and is relentlessly harassed because of it. Pecola struggles a great deal with her Blackness, and goes on a journey throughout the novel in an attempt to have her eyes become blue, a classic symbol of whiteness. On her way home from school one day, a group of Black boys surrounded her and kept shouting “Black e mo Black e mo ya daddy sleeps nekked” (Morrison 65) at her, and would not let her go. In this scene, Morrison breaks from the structure of the novel, and a narrator comments on the scene:
They had extemporized a verse made up of two insults about matters over which the victim had no control: the color of her skin and speculations on the sleeping habits of an adult, wildly fitting in its incoherence. That they themselves were black, or that their own father had similarly relaxed habits was irrelevant. It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds--cooled--and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path. (Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 65)
This one of the most moving and disturbing moment of the entire novel. So much of the pain felt by characters in The Bluest Eye comes from the thoughts and ideas in these four short sentences. While the novel is about Pecola’s story, internalized anti-Blackness within even some of the youngest children in the Black community is the larger story at stake. Pecola is merely representative of many young Black children struggling to exist in their own skin and to develop their own identity away from the ever-prevalent shadow of whiteness and white supremacy.
Shortly after this scene, Pecola meets Maureen for the first time. When Pecola introduces herself, the two have the following conversation:
“I just moved here. My name is Maureen Peal. What’s yours?”
“Pecola? Wasn’t that the name of the girl in Imitation of Life?”
“I don’t know. What is that?”
“The picture show, you know. Where this mulatto girl hates her mother cause she is black and ugly but then cries at the funeral. It was real sad. Everybody cries in it. Claudette Colbert too.”
“Oh.” Pecola’s voice was no more than a sigh.
“Anyway, her name was Pecola too. She was so pretty. When it comes back, I’m going to see it again. My mother has seen it four times.” (Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 67-68)
Based on Maureen’s brief comments on the film, she has taken the characterization of Peola as a tragic mulatto figure at face value. It also makes sense that Maureen would fail to understand the deeper meaning of the film, and Peola’s struggle not against her mother, but with the idea of Blackness, colorism, and self-identity. Maureen herself is a light-skinned Black girl, but she seems to read this film more like a white viewer than a Black viewer would. I would speculate that because she is treated by those around her as superior to others within the Black community, that perhaps she sees herself as more closely aligned with white communities than Black communities. The hints of anti-Blackness also appear in her descriptors of the characters: Delilah is “Black and ugly,” but light-skinned Peola is “so pretty.” Pecola recognizes this, with her soft and sad response to hearing “Black” associated with “ugly.” At such a young age, Maureen has already associated Blackness with ugliness and whiteness with beauty, much like the children who participated in the doll test.
Shortly after this conversation, there is a scene in The Bluest Eye that mimics the Imitation of Life scene where Jessie calls Peola “Black.” The four young girls are arguing, and Maureen says (about Pecola), “What do I care about her old Black daddy?” (Morrison 73). Claudia, defending Pecola, responds “Black? Who you calling black? You think you so cute!” (Morrison 73). Maureen then ran away from the other girls, and shouts at them “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!” (Morrison 73). Even though Maureen Peal is still a Black girl, just like Claudia, Freida, and Pecola, with this statement she has asserted her superiority over them because she appears “less Black” than they do. She insists that she is cute, and they are ugly. Not only are they ugly in her mind, but she thinks that they are ugly explicitly because of their Blackness.
This altercation left a strong impact on Claudia, the narrator of this chapter. She has an incredibly moving monologue about the situation:
We were sinking under the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance of Maureen’s last words. If she was cute--and if anything could be believed, she was--then we were not. And what did that mean? We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but still lesser. Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world. What was the secret? What did we lack?...And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us. (Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 74)
This is such an astute observation for a young, elementary school-aged girl to make, and it is also deeply upsetting. Claudia recognized that even if she is nicer than Maureen, even if she is smarter than Maureen, that because of her Blackness, she will always be seen as lesser when compared to Maureen. She also recognizes that no matter what she does or tries to do, that she cannot change this. And yet, she is not angry at Maureen per se. This strikes one as an extraordinary and generous insight for a young girl to have: Claudia recognizes that white supremacy is the Enemy, not individuals like Maureen.
The abstract nature of the 'enemy' is an awareness that Peola in Imitation of Life does not come to until the very end of the film, when she is at her mother’s funeral. What Peola does recognize is that perceived whiteness has given her a leg up in life, so she does all that she can to pass for white, even if it means disowning her own mother. However, she does not recognize until the end of the film that Delilah, her mother, was not the enemy. She spends so much time lashing out at her mother because she is upset about her Blackness, and Delilah takes it without complaint. Peola fails to realize until it is too late that individuals are not the enemy, and that white supremacy is. Delilah recognizes this, and knows that her daughter, too, will learn it in time.
I believe that this is the key distinction between white and Black responses to Imitation of Life. White viewers, and those who consider themselves in close proximity to whiteness (such as Maureen) were far more likely to view this film as a problem with the individual: that Peola is upset with Delilah for her circumstances. However, Black viewers, those who cannot pass as white (such as Claudia, Freida, and Pecola), live these experiences every single day. These viewers would be more likely to recognize that it is not a problem with an individual, but instead it is a problem with white supremacy. The everyday, lived experiences of having to live with racism, in particular colorism, and anti-Blackness shapes a viewer’s relationship with the story of Peola and Delilah, because it is really not a story “about” Peola and Delilah. Instead, it is far more a story of Peola and systemic racism, and her journey to determine what race and identity means to her.
Even though The Bluest Eye and 1934’s Imitation of Life appear to be two entirely different stories, they are not so different at all. Both of these two different pieces of art tackle the subject of racism, colorism, and white supremacy, just from two very different perspectives. I believe that the characters in The Bluest Eye, particularly Claudia who is so mature, have benefitted and developed that greater sense of understanding because they live in a Black community, surrounded by many other people who live the same struggles that they do. In contrast, Peola lives in a predominantly white community, and the only Black person that we see her interact with is her mother. I wonder if perhaps Peola would have developed a similar level of consciousness and understanding like Claudia has if she lived in a similar community to the girls in The Bluest Eye.
Caputi, Jane. “ ‘Specifying’ Fannie Hurst: Langston Hughes's ‘Limitations of Life,’ Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God, and Toni Morrison's the Bluest Eye as ‘Answers’ to Hurst's Imitation of Life." Black American Literature Forum. Vol. 24. No. 4. St. Louis University, 1990.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 2002.
Imitation of Life. Directed by John M. Stahl, Universal Pictures, 1934.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, 1970.
Sharman, Russell Leigh. Moving Pictures: An Introduction to Cinema. University of Arkansas, 2020.
Stafford, Jeff. “Imitation of Life (1934).” Turner Classic Movies, https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/79028/imitation-of-life#articles-reviews?articleId=84059.