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The White Actor in Imitation of Life
Sirk uses camp to show the artificiality, and the power, of appearances.
Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) is a wonderful example of how camp can function as critique. And while other critics have certainly talked about this, some of the most obvious (or perhaps least obvious) ways it uses camp don’t seem to be much discussed.
The film is about widowed would-be actor Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) who forms a household with maid Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore.) Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is for all intents and purposes white in appearance. She becomes close friends with Lora’s daughter Susie (Sandra Dee), and becomes determined to cross the color line.
The film touches on a plethora of interconnected, spoken and unspoken fissures in the stultifying patriarchal conformity of 1950s (and for that matter 2020s) America. Lora’s ambition as a single widowed woman is connected to her improper, implicitly lesbian household with Annie; the anxiety around those interconnected forms of sexual deviance are linked to Susie’s incestuous desire for her mother’s boyfriend Steve (John Gavin). It’s also tied to Sarah Jane’s career in chorus-line sex work—which is linked back again to Lora’s career in theater, which she is expected to advance via sexual favors. And all of these are tied up with the fault line of race—both in an American context, and for Sirk in a German one (he was forced to flee Germany after he married a Jewish woman.)
I’m going to focus here on how camp is used to destabilize and question racial categories. Philip Core defines camp as “the lie that tells the truth.” It’s a definition bounded by the closet, and the way queer identity has been shaped by a demand for secrecy and visibility: a need to say you are exactly who you are by saying you are something else.
In Imitation of Life, one central lie that tells the truth is this: Sarah Jane is white.
Within the context of the film, this is a lie. Sarah Jane’s mother is Black; Sarah Jane herself is a Black woman. She tells people she is white because she wants to escape from stigma and the limited economic and cultural opportunities available to Black women. When Sarah Jane says “I am white” she is lying and attempting to deceive boyfriends, employers, the public at large.
But that lie is the precise truth. Sarah Jane is white. That’s the case because, first of all, she looks as white as Susie. But it’s also the case because the actor who plays Sarah Jane, Susan Kohner, is a white woman.
Kohner is of Mexican and Jewish descent in part, so she can just pass as a very light-skinned Black woman, if you squint and suspend disbelief. But really, looking at her, it’s pretty clear she’s not Black, even in part.
Today the part of Kohner would go to someone like Jennifer Beals or Ruth Negga. That’s as it should be; Black woman have few enough opportunities in acting as it is, and taking those few away from them is wrong.
But casting a white woman in the role does create a certain frisson of camp meaning. Kohner is white. She keeps saying she’s white. There is, literally, no color to see. But in the film, this literal truth is taken as a lie because within the reality of the film, she is Black.
Sarah Jane’s Blackness is not real; it’s a cultural construct—a fantasy that all the characters in the film, white and Black, pretend to honor. And yet that fantasy of Blackness determines every aspect of Sarah Jane’s life: who she can marry, what jobs she can pursue, whether or not she can have a life with her mother in it.
More, the cultural construct of Blackness affects not just Sarah Jane, but Kohner as well. Many critics have noted that Annie and Sarah Jane’s story is much more interesting than Lora’s. For that matter, Sirk himself has said he’s more interested in the Black characters than in the white ones. Yet, because Hollywood in the 1950s (and still today) centers whiteness, the top billing has to go to Lana Turner, and the film gives about as much space to Susie’s incredibly banal teen crush as it does to Sarah Jane’s hideously painful, unjust struggle with racism and rage. The white characters must be centered; the Black ones are pushed off to the side. The film about racism is itself, inevitably, helplessly, racist.
But again, Susan Kohner is not Black. It is only in the context of the film that she is playing a Black character. Yet that cultural construct of Blackness circumscribes her role and her billing, She, like Juanita Moore, is consigned to the secondary plot. The cultural construct of her as Black affects her within the film, but it also affects her career outside the film. Race is always everywhere a lie that tells the truth—or, perhaps more accurately, a lie that creates a truth.
I think it’s important here, too, that Sarah Jane actively performs whiteness by becoming a chorus girl and appearing in stage shows, just as Kohner performers Blackness in the film—or as Lora performs whiteness on the stage, and Lana Turner performs whiteness in the film. Race is an imitation, not just for Sarah Jane, but for all the characters in the film, and for all the people outside it.
In the last scene of the film, Steve looks at Lora, Susie and Sarah Jane comforting each other after Annie’s death. They look like a normal, grieving white family. He smiles incongruously and disturbingly. That may be because he, the benign patriarch, knows the truth, or the lie, that racial difference persists. Race doesn’t exist, but you can’t stop seeing it. Perhaps because those with power, like Steve, make sure that it sees you.
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