In this version of the Fannie Hurst novel that has been filmed at least four times, Delilah (Louise Beavers), a maid and single mom, dreams up a recipe for pancakes that makes a fortune for her employer Bea (Claudette Colbert) and herself. Bea has romantic entanglements, but the real conflict is between Delilah and her light-skinned daughter Peola (Fredi Washington). Peola finds that she can “pass” for white, and to become a part of the ruling society she renounces her mother. “Even if you pass me on the street,” she tells Delilah, “you’ll have to pass me by.” Bea is shocked by this seeming callousness, but Peola tells her, “You don’t know what it’s like to look white and be black.” After Delilah dies of a broken heart, Peola appears at the funeral and, in one of the cinema’s prime weepie tropes, throws herself on the casket. Is Peola guilty of matricide? Or does she represent a poignant solution to blacks hoping to escape the status of second-class citizens? To be accepted by whites, you just convince them you are white.
Washington, who came from Broadway, danced with Josephine Baker in Shuffle Along and acted with Paul Robeson in Black Boy, had a face, figure and natural elegance made for movies. She was cast as Duke Ellington’s tragic lover in the 1929 short Black and Tan. The director, Dudley Murphy, cast her in 1933 as a prostitute opposite Paul Robeson in the independently made The Emperor Jones. (According to Robeson’s son, she had a long-running affair with the actor-singer.) Washington’s dusky gorgeousness in Imitation of Life must have scared Hollywood bosses even as it tempted them. She got fourth billing in a 1937 Fox film, One Mile from Heaven, but that was it. She returned to New York, where she co-founded the Negro Actors Guild of America and was a casting consultant on the 50s’ two big black musicals, Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. She devoted most of her productive life to civil rights struggles that tried to redress the indignities that she and so many others had suffered.
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