Published: May 1, 1998 By

"A Case Very Near the Borderline"

(1)   Hollywood's Production Code explicitly banned "miscegenation" from the American screen for nearly thirty years.1The files of the Production Code Administration (PCA) which document the interpretation of that ban, however, demonstrate the PCA censors' utter confusion as to the meaning of the miscegenation clause they were charged to enforce. That confusion is nowhere more apparent than in the PCA's file onImitation of Life (1934), a project the PCA originally rejected on the grounds that it "violate[d] the Code clause covering miscegenation, in spirit, if not in fact."2 What is strikingly odd about the PCA's original ruling in this case, however, is that while the clause of the Code that forbade miscegenation defined it as a "sex relationship between the white and black races," no such "sex relationship" was "in fact" at issue in Imitation of Life. Indeed, like Fannie Hurst's best-selling novel on which the script was based, the melodrama was far more concerned with relationships among black and white women than with any heterosexual relationships. Specifically, the film's plot follows the rise to fortune of a white widow on the profits of her black maid's pancake recipe, and is primarily centered around the relationships among these two single mothers, Bea Pullman and Delilah, and their respective daughters, Jessie and Peola. While the film shows us no heterosexual "sex relationship" between whites and blacks, the considerable extent to which Bea and Delilah function as a couple might invite us to read the relationship between these women as a "sex relationship" of its own. Delilah cooks, cleans and rears Bea's child during the day and rubs her feet at night—the latter prompting Bea to sigh with pleasure while Delilah lectures her about the joys of passion Bea has yet to find with a man: "You need some loving honey child!" Yet as significant as Bea and Delilah's relationship is to an understanding of the film, a reading of it as "miscegenation" seems to have been well beyond the sensibilities of the PCA censors who, in my experience, never considered "sex relationship" in anything but the most decidedly heterosexual of terms. Nevertheless, in a letter to Universal that supported (without clarifying) PCA Director Joe Breen's nebulous interpretation of miscegenation, Will Hays, Breen's boss, expressed the PCA's "considerable worry" on the subject and urged the studio to drop the project, lest it "develop into a case very near the borderline."3

(2)   The borderline Hays specifies in this letter refers to the PCA's divided obligations to the studios on the one hand and "to Society" on the other. However, close analysis of the correspondence between the studio and the censors in the PCA's file on Imitation of Life reveals that the censors' concern was tied to a range of more profound borderlines—in particular, with those marking differences of race, color, blood and skin. Specifically, as we will shortly see, the character Peola, the light-skinned daughter of the black maid Delilah, not only confounded the PCA's ability to discern racial identity, but perpetually threatened to unmask "race" as itself an imitation through and through—a cultural fiction in which we are asked to believe which has no natural life of its own. Moreover, Imitation of Life's perceived danger "to Society," I propose, was that it threatened to expose cinema's unique contribution to the construction of "race." That contribution is pointed towards in Breen's rejection letters to Universal when he deems that "No picturization of miscegenation is permitted" and identifies Imitation of Life as "the type of story, which, if picturized, will necessarily have to be rejected."4 Hays echoes this formulation when he pleads to Universal that "In a case like this, of course, it would be hoped that the picture not be made."5 What this contemporary jargon of "the pictures" brings to the surface is thatImitation of Life raised yet another significant borderline, and one of particularly filmic consequence, that between the visibility and invisibility of the racial identities in question. In other words, as I will demonstrate, the PCA's difficulty in administering the miscegenation clause in this instance stemmed directly from the censors' hesitation—their "considerable worry," as they put it—in negotiating how boundaries of racial difference should be cinematically constructed to be seen, and believed, on the screen.

(3)   Ultimately, my analysis of the role of the miscegenation clause in determining how race would be "picturized" in Imitation of Life not only seeks to understand Hollywood's extensive concern and confusion in this particular case, but further to expand and refine our understanding of Hollywood's ongoing, cinematic participation in shaping cultural conceptions of the very meaning and location of racial identity, particularly as it is conceived of as a visible category.6 Through readings of the censorial documents that circulated around the production of Imitation of Life and of the film that eventually emerged as a result, I will argue that Hollywood cinema is particularly invested in, and suited to, shifting the meaning of racial identity from a discourse organized around "blood" and ancestry, to one more heavily dependent on visual discourses of skin, color and the bodily image.7 In the case ofImitation of Life we will see that such efforts ultimately resulted in the constitution of "race" as a visible, self-evident fact, whose "essence" is guaranteed by its very visibility.8

The Problem with Peola

(4)   The PCA's anxiety over Imitation of Life is apparent throughout its extensive correspondence on the project with Universal.9 Four months into negotiations over the script between Universal and the PCA, Breen rejects it yet again. He writes:

… we still feel that this story is a definitely dangerous one. It is our conviction that any picture which raises and elaborates such an inflammable racial question as that raised by this picture is fraught with grave danger to the industry…10
Despite the continual waving of such red flags, however, the precise cause of the PCA's concern is difficult to pinpoint. That is, while various interpretations of miscegenation are suggested by various staff members at various moments, the "inflammable racial question" is never precisely posed. The PCA's ongoing confusion about the very meaning of miscegenation, or more specifically, what it means to "picturize" miscegenation on film, seems as responsible for the paper trail of censorial anxiety as any given element of the script itself.
(5)   The extent of the PCA's confusion over the meaning of the Code's miscegenation clause is evident from the earliest document in their file on Imitation of Life and throughout the over fifty letters and memos that follow it. Breen's initial rejection of the project on the grounds that "Hurst's novel dealing with a partly colored girl who wants to pass as white…violates the…clause covering miscegenation in spirit, if not in fact!" is surrounded by a range of equally ambiguous, and equally intriguing, formulations.11 An earlier internal staff memo reporting to Director Breen similarly writes:

The script is based wholly on the suggested intermingling of blacks and whites and, although it has no actual case in point, the entire plot evolves on miscegenation.12

Although Breen never offers or exacts an elaboration of the precise meaning of such distinctions between "suggested" or "actual" representations of miscegenation, between representations "in spirit" or "in fact"—distinctions that would seem especially difficult to sustain both in the context of the always imaginary domain of cinematic representation, and in the context of a censorship regime that would never have allowed anything that approximated an "actual" depiction of any sexual "intermingling"—he does inadvertently admit his own confusion on the subject of miscegenation when he assigns a staff member to look it up. The staffer's research for precedents in the PCA's files, however, does not end the confusion to facilitate a "reasonable interpretation" of Imitation of Life.13 In a "MEMORANDUM FOR MR. BREEN re-MISCEGENATION" the staffer reports: "I am sorry to say that there is very little in the files on the subject of miscegenation—certainly nothing that is a specific example of our present problem."14 The memo's closing paragraph repeats this sentiment, but also tries to account for it:

I am afraid there is very little here of assistance to us, but I should say the reason for that is, that the subject has always been taboo, and that there has been no opportunity to collect evidence referring to it.

This assessment of precedents on the subject in the PCA's files, or lack thereof, is partly accurate and partly inaccurate.15 More importantly, the tautological invocation of taboo here (it "has always been taboo" and therefore there is "no…evidence referring to it") is indicative not only of the depth of the PCA's uncertainty about miscegenation, but further of its participation in Hollywood's ongoing desire to remake interracial desire, an historical fact, as always already having been a taboo. That is, the air of confusion conjured around the subject works precisely, even if not consciously, as a means to forget the historical evidence—in American history and in the files of the PCA—and consequently to attempt to forget the considerable challenges that interracial desire poses to legal, social and psychic definitions of race. In that light, it makes a certain kind of sense that the PCA would not specify the "inflammable racial question," or questions, raised by the subject of miscegenation, because to do so would invite precisely the kinds of social and psychic eruptions that a ban on miscegenation would seemingly want to keep at bay.

(6)   Before attempting to decode the PCA's unspecified definitions of miscegenation in this case, then, it is important to note not only their "considerable worry" and confusion over Imitation of Life's alleged "miscegenation," but the extent to which that concern is already coded in fantasmatic terms. There is "no actual case in point" of a black and white sex relationship, "no active portrayal of miscegenation…yet thesuggestion is omnipresent."16 What is at stake, we know already, is not historical or even fictive practice (what people or characters do), but cultural and spectatorial belief. The manifold objections cited above fear "miscegenation" not so much as a contemporary issue or concern, but as something that reaches far back in cultural memory (It "has always been taboo."), and/or, as Breen's evolutionary reference suggests, as something that threatens to encroach upon the future as well. The potential danger of a plot which "evolves on" miscegenation (not "revolves" around, as we would expect to hear it), would seem to lie in the extra-diegetic damage the subject might bring. We will see that while the future of filmic characters are at issue, it is, more importantly, the evolution of belief in fictions of race that haunts the censors' discussion ofImitation of Life most profoundly.

(7)   More concretely, moving through the web of correspondence in the PCA file on Imitation of Life, one finds two specific elements of the proposed script discussed as violations of the miscegenation clause. One was a sequence (which did not occur in Hurst's novel) of a misinterpreted encounter between a black man and a white woman. Yet this sequence—which the PCA refers to as "the lynching sequence" because of the man's near lynching as a result of the encounter—poses no interpretive confusion for the censors and is ultimately dropped by the studio.17However, the other distinct element of the script which is more extensively discussed and debated is the story of Peola, Delilah's daughter who eventually passes for white. Recounting a meeting that took place between representatives of the PCA and the studio, a PCA memo notes that "It was our contention that this part of the plot—the action of the negro girl appearing as white—has a definite connection with the problem of miscegenation."18 This connection is made again when a producer unsuccessfully tries to appease the censors' concerns with a suggested revision which would attempt to "avoid the inference that the leading character was a descendant of a white ancestor."19 Like other PCA descriptions of the script as "deal[ing] with the problem that follows as the result of miscegenation,"20 this conversation suggests that the miscegenation at issue here, the "sex relationship" of "grave" concern, was a relationship which not only would not take place on screen, but which would not even take place within the diegetic sweep of the film as a whole. That is, while miscegenation itself isnotdepicted, the "fact" that it had to have happened (fictionally) as the unmentioned backstory for the current narrative, makes it, in Breen's eyes, a violation of the Code's miscegenation clause. While we do not have a copy of the originally proposed (and rejected) script, none of the extant versions of Imitation of Life (the 1933 novel, the 1934 film and the 1959 film) ever specifies if, when or by whom any interracial sex took place. In all of these texts our only knowledge about Peola's ancestry comes in the form of images of her dark-skinned mother and brief, vague references about her light-skinned black father.21 In other words then, the PCA reads Peola's light skin, and her passing, as signifiers of "miscegenation." By conflating miscegenation and passing in this way, the censors effectively attempt to extend the Code's ban on desire across black and white racial boundaries to include a ban on identification across those boundaries as well.

(8)   While such a conflation of identification and desire seems less than "reasonable" in the context of the PCA's typical interpretive practices, it is not wholly illogical from a theoretical standpoint. For the PCA's conflation implicitly acknowledges that what is at issue here is precisely the psychic dimension of racial ideology: not only how subjects are culturally identified as raced subjects ("black," "white," etc.), but how subjects psychically identify with such interpellations.22 Even if the story lacks a sexual transgression of "the color line," it imagines a psychic transgression of it in Peola's desire to be, and to be seen as, white. The PCA's confusion in this case reminds us, then, that Hollywood's investment in fantasies of miscegenation is so dear precisely because those fantasies have everything to do with how subjects—characters on screen like Peola, as well as spectators in the theater—believe in, and identify in relation to, racial lines.23 And while cross-racial identification might appear less prurient, less "bawdy" as Breen might write it, than interracial desire, it clearly poses an equally, if not more, radical threat to systems of racial difference than "sex relationships" might indicate. Whereas the later can result in "mixed" bodies and communities which can destabilize social hierarchies based on clearly marked racial divisions, the former threatens to destabilize those hierarchies at arguably the most profound level, that of identity and belief.

(9)   Despite the theoretical logic we might apply to the PCA's extension of the miscegenation clause to passing, however, this vexed interpretation nonetheless raised objections not only from the studio, but from staffers at the Hays office as well. At a certain point, when debate on the project in Hollywood had been going on for some time, Breen writes to Hays' staff in New York for advice on the case. In reply the New York staff agrees with Breen that "the picturization of this subject matter would be fraught with the gravest danger."24 However, the New Yorkers disagree as to what exactly this subject matter is. They write:

It is not, as we see it, a problem of miscegenation — that is, the act of miscegenation has occurred so remotely in the ancestry of the characters that it need not concern us. The girl's father and mother are both negroes though the father had white blood which gives the girl the appearance of a white person.

By explicitly distinguishing miscegenation from what actually occurs in the script, the reading from New York attempts to clear up the confusion in Hollywood between interracial desire and cross-racial identification. In addition, however, it again suggests that identification is the more fraught issue here: "The big problem," they write, "is…the subject matter…as a whole." So big, in fact, that after the New York staff argues that miscegenation per se is not an issue in this case, they nonetheless urge Breen "to persuade the company to abandon its plan for production." While they provide no further explanation of "the big problem," one is suggested by their strained description of Peola's racial identity in the same memo: "The girl's father and mother are both negroes though the father had white blood which gives the girl the appearance of a white person." Choosing to apply the "one drop rule" in its traditionally unilateral direction, they here define the (absent) father with "white blood" as nonetheless "negro." "The big problem" that continues to surface does so at the site of the daughter's "appearance."

(10)   The PCA struggles to identify Peola throughout its correspondence on the project. Indeed, it becomes increasingly clear that, far in excess of the question of her "remote…ancestry," is the considerable problem she poses for systems of marking and securing racial difference. In addition to the description from New York cited above, Peola is described throughout the PCA's memos and letters as variously:

  • the white child of a colored mother [with] negro blood in her veins
  • the negro girl appearing as white
  • the half-white, half-black girl
  • the white skinned negro girl
  • [one of] the two negroes
  • a girl with some negro blood who is confronted with the temptation to pass herself off as white
  • a partly colored girl
  • the girl [with] the appearance of a white person
  • the daughter of the colored woman [who] can pass for white
  • [the] mulatto offspring
  • pretending to be white when black
  • a part negro girl who is tempted to pass as white [and]
  • a lightcolored negro girl who desires to go white25

The first thing to be noted about this remarkable catalogue is that no two items in it are alike. Three of these, three with significantly different connotations, appear in a single letter: "the half-white, half-black girl," "the white skinned negro girl" and one of "the two negroes." Such continual attempts to name Peola's racial identity reflect the PCA's desire to pin that identity down. Yet, the impossibility of ever doing so is suggested by the fact that none of these descriptions adheres, but each is displaced by yet another attempt. That Peola thwarts the PCA's own ability to clearly identify, delimit and secure racial difference begins to reveal what exactly the "inflammable racial question," or questions, are thatImitation of Life poses. Indeed, the PCA's perpetual (failed) attempts to define Peola would seem to beg the question as to the very meaning of "race" itself. The inflammable answer that the PCA's own readings of Imitation of Life threaten to invite, even if against the grain of that essentialist text, is that "race" is not fixed, or verifiable, but on the contrary is perpetually constructed through discourse.
(11)   The PCA's ever-changing names for Peola expose the discursive construction of race in their deployment of four separate, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, categories to mark racial difference. Whereas "black," "white" and "colored" operate through a discourse of color, which is often, but not always, tied to "skin," "negro" works through a separate discourse of race (in the traditional/archaic anthropological sense) which is sometimes, but not always, tied to "blood."26 In attempting to account for Peola's racial identity, the PCA variously combines such signifiers of color, skin, race and blood and as a result often marks her doubly (as in "the negro girl appearing as white"), and even triply (as in "the white child of acolored mother [with] negroblood"). In the case of the memo which defines Peola as "the white skinned negro girl," as if to match the force of that double marking, the same memo extends the double syntax to describe Delilah as "the black negro." Peola prompts such multiple markings, in effect, precisely because she confounds the notion that these categories are continuous, that they exist in any natural or seamless relation. Thus, the "danger" of Peola's story comes into new light. Calling attention to the disjunctures between "race," "color," "blood" and "skin," Peola threatens to rupture the constellation of discourses which work to construct the fiction that "race" is a natural category and that bodily wrappings are tied to interior essences.

(12)   That the relation between color and race was very much at the heart of the question of "miscegenation" in the PCA's adjudication of Imitation of Life is implicit in a memo which records a meeting between representatives of the PCA and Universal. In that meeting, which I cited earlier, the PCA expresses their position that "the action of the negro girl appearing as white…has a definite connection with the problem of miscegenation"—a position which again doubly marks Peola as "negro" and "white" and ties that conflicted identity to miscegenation. Additionally, a producer attempts to appease the censors' objection by proposing that the film could "definitely establish that [Peola's] white skin was due to a rare but scientific fact that such a child might come of a line of definitely negro strain."27 That this suggestion is never again mentioned in the files is not at all surprising. Not only would such an explanation fail to allay the censors' greatest fears regarding identification and desire (she could still pass and viewers could stillimagine that miscegenation had taken place "in spirit, if not in fact"), but it would also explicitly draw attention to the disjuncture not only between race and color, but further between these and "blood," or ancestry, as well. Attempting to keep in place the system of racial difference that depends upon the elision of these disjunctures, the PCA opts instead to ultimately insist on making Peola essentially "black." Thus, we see in their final correspondence on the subject that Peola is no longer described as "the white child" "with some negro blood," but increasingly becomes "a negro," "pretending to be white, when black." Foreshadowing the visual discourse of the film soon to come, this last description would seem to redefine "black" as not simply a color, but an essential identity.

(13)   The problems Peola's identity posed to the censors who attempted to classify her in writing, already point to the even more complicated stakes that would arise in "picturiz[ing]" her. At least in writing the censors could doubly mark her as, in effect, looking white, but being black. Clearly such markings are put into a new state of crisis when projected through filmic images. That is, while the PCA's written accounts of Peola could counterbalance her exterior "whiteness" by reimposing an interior "blackness," that strategy would not suffice on film. This is especially the case in light of Hollywood's usual complicity in, indeed its contribution to, the cultural fiction that race is not only an essential fact, but a visually verifiable one. In Hollywood's system of racial difference, a system fully invested in a visual discourse of race in which the image (not blood or ancestry) guarantees racial identity, how does one safely project the image of a "negro girl appearing as white"?

(14)   Universal attempted to do so in part by casting Fredi Washington, an African American actress, in the role of Peola and, as rumor had it, by having her wear make-up to darken her light complexion.28 Whether founded in truth or fiction, the mere circulation of such a rumor would attest to an understanding that American cinema had its own demands and devices for constructing race. As the following analysis of the film that ultimately did get made will attest, that cinema would pull heavily from its own bag of tricks to insist upon Peola's looking and being "black."
"That's It!…A Great Big Picture of Delilah, Looking Like That"
(15)   While the PCA file fails to document what exactly moved the censors to finally approve the project, another kind of answer presents itself in the film that eventually emerged.29 Hollywood's cinematic solution to the inflammable image of Peola, I propose, came in the unequivocal image of her mother, Delilah. That solution is worked out in the 1934 film through an overwhelming preoccupation with the cinematic production and reproduction of Delilah's image. The hyper-spectacle that "Aunt Delilah" (read Aunt Jemima) almost instantly becomes in her first appearance, and is eventually memorialized as in her final incarnation as a giant flashing neon sign, is elaborated throughout the film in significant contrast to both her daughter Peola, and to her white mistress, Bea Pullman. Indeed, one could readily argue that the film is devoted, perhaps above all else, to distinguishing these images of black and white femininity. This is evidenced historically by the differing significance the film would come to have in the careers of its two female leads. For Claudette Colbert (who would take an Academy Award that year for her performance in It Happened One Night), the film served as a star vehicle in which her character's transformation from widow to CEO facilitates a kind of coming out as erotic spectacle; from struggling to survive in modest working girl outfits to elegantly roaming about her multi-storied mansion in elaborate designer gowns (figs. 1, 2 and 3).30

 Picturizing Race

Whereas for Louise Beavers in the role of Delilah, the same film would signal a future career playing, as Beavers herself described it, "likeable Negro maids—plump and happy and quick to laugh."31 What is more, while that "mammy" character had been well established in Hurst's novel, Stahl's film not only brought it to the screen, but thoroughly worked it over through the apparatus of cinema.

(16)   While I want ultimately to consider the film's implicit construction of Delilah's image as a solution to the potentialracial crisis detected in the PCA's anxieties regarding her "white skinned negro" daughter, we need first to consider the film's explicit presentation of Delilah from the outset as the solution to a gendercrisis. For, as I have argued elsewhere to be the case throughout the history of American cinema, we find here that an attempt to resolve deeply troubling ruptures in one system of difference is facilitated by the overt manipulation of another. And, in the case of Imitation of Life, the interaction operates in both directions: the presentation of a dutiful black servant as the answer to a single white mother's prayers not only leans on an entrenched racial tradition to put down the film's anxieties about working (white) women, but in the process it also finds a highly gendered means to overcome "the big problem" posed by Peola to the filmic security of racial identity.

(17)   The opening scene of Imitation of Life clearly, and quickly, announces the manifest gender problem that the rest of the film will take upon itself to correct: Bea Pullman, the young mother who carries on her dead husband's business selling syrup door to door, is having trouble fulfilling her role as "woman." Fanny Hurst's novel contextualizes such trouble by first chronicling Bea's sexual and psychic misery in a dismal marriage, and by playing androgynous name games in the text which allow Bea to pass as her husband Benjamin for some time after his death by delivering her goods incognito and using his business card inscribed simply with the name "B. Pullman."32 The film skips over such potentially feminist leaning contexts and begins instead with the husband long since dead, immediately privileging the "dilemma" of a working woman without a man.

(18)   Following the credits and an intertitle which situates us in a residential area of Atlantic City in 1919, we first see a shot of a rubber duck floating in a bath tub, and hear an offscreen conversation between a small child and her mother. The child voices her desire, "I want my quack quack," and the mother begins a series of refusals. At first the mother simply defers the child's request ("Not now, wait til mother finishes your bath"), but by the end of the scene both the demand and the refusal have grown dramatically in scope. When mother talks of having to get the child "dressed and fed and down to the day nursery," the baby declares her disapproval: "Don't want to go to the day nursery, want to stay home with mommy!" Baby Jessie repeats this incantation several times, and by the end of the scene delivers it in the form of a song she repeatedly sings: "I love you and you love me, and I don't want to go to day nursery." While the child's emphatic protest to day care makes the point impossible to miss, the film further insists on Bea's domestic failure in a series of shots in which she struggles to juggle at once the crying baby in the bath upstairs, a ringing phone downstairs, a phone conversation with a client and pots boiling over on the stove. The same scene ultimately comes to Bea's rescue, however, with the surprise delivery of a black maid on her doorstep. While diegetically Delilah has come to the "wrong" address, confusing Bea's address on Aster Street with the advertised job on Aster Avenue, the film has clearly sent her here on a mission to attend to the (gender) chaos so insistently established for us in the film's opening minutes.

 Picturizing Race

(19)   The film marshals considerable cinematic energy to pointedly mark the destiny of Delilah's arrival. We first see her briefly, framed through the rectangle of a screen door at the back of Bea's kitchen (fig. 4). Her official introduction, however, comes in her second shot. Following our first glimpse of Delilah at the back door, Bea moves to respond to the ringing doorbell. She pokes her head around the banister at the bottom of the stairs and moves swiftly off the staircase through the hall and kitchen, the camera tracking her brisk movement all the while (fig. 5). That movement ends abruptly in a cut to Delilah, still framed by the door, but this time photographed in a slow but distinct zoom which moves from a medium shot to land in a close-up of her face (figs. 6a and 6b). The movement of the camera here anticipates the narrative and visual trajectories to come, finding Delilah— particularly a magnified image of her dark, round and smiling face—as that which settles Bea's chaotic struggles about the house.33 This problem/solution pattern is continued in the same scene as Delilah (p)repares breakfast without being asked, convinces Bea to give her the job that wasn't advertised and delightedly accepts it without pay.34 The pattern climaxes visually in the final shots of this opening scene. When Bea returns upstairs to find that a fully dressed Jessie has fallen back into the tub, needing now to be dried and dressed all over again, she buries her head in her hands in utter dismay. The white mother's bewilderment upstairs is answered by a high angle shot from the top of the staircase that looks down through the banister rails to find the dutiful black servant smiling warmly upwards. With this shot, staged for our eyes only, we know without a doubt that this heaven sent lowly angel is here to set things right.35

(20)   In the course of the film it becomes clear that Delilah's magical delivery to this house on Aster Street not only helps Bea with the tasks of motherhood, but helps her become a "proper" woman. Even though Delilah's presence in the home enables Bea to pursue professional desires that result in an increasingly consuming career, Delilah's presence, and eventual death, also work to eventually restore Bea to the feminine roles of mother and potential wife. This is evident in the final scene when, following Delilah's funeral, Bea and a now grown Jessie are brought together to reminisce about the first time Bea met Delilah and the morning with which the film opened. In the course of this sequence the film ends with the words with which it began, "I want my quack quack," though now they are delivered by Bea, not Jessie, as she walks in the moonlight with her arm around her daughter. In an earlier portion of this scene, Bea had temporarily given up the man she loves until such time as that relationship would no longer disturb her daughter, who also loves the same man. In that context, Bea's wistful incantation of "I want my quack quack, I want my quack quack" at once points to her grand attempt to finally satisfy her daughter's desire and to the deferral of her own in the process.36 Hence, in a fitting memorial to the woman who perpetually mothered both Jessie and Bea, this scene signals Bea's full transformation into a "properly" sacrificial woman.37

(21)   While Delilah both supplements and restores Bea as a mother, she also functions as the backbone of Bea's economic success, supplying her not only with the secret recipe for the pancakes that Bea sells first in a small restaurant and then boxed for national distribution, but also with the labor upon which Bea's escalating profits depend. Bea openly announces this division of labor when she first shares her idea to open the pancake shop with Delilah: "Delilah, we're going into business…You're going to make pancakes and I'm going to sell them." When we see Bea in the restaurant she is typically standing behind the counter, sometimes exchanging money with customers and creditors and sometimes just standing. When we once see Bea actually flip a cake on the griddle, it is an act of charity which in turn leads to the expansion of her small business into a major corporation. Feeding a penniless man off the street during a heavy storm which rains away the paying clientele, Bea is graced with his two words of advice that will make her fortune—"Box it!" Thus, even when she actually stands over the grill, Bea's labor is directed towards capitalistic expansion, while it is Delilah who not only makes the product for sale without compensation, but insists upon being Bea's "cook" at home as well.
 Picturizing Race

The radical economic disparity in this arrangement is only flaunted more boldly when the profits soar and, more than five years into "their" business, Bea finally offers Delilah a percentage, which even then is a mere twenty percent. After Bea explains that this means Delilah can own her own car and home, Delilah responds in terror: "My own house? You gonna send me away Miss Bea?…How am I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I ain't here?…I's your cook and I want to stay your cook."

(22)   What is more, and more pertinent to the argument at hand, Delilah's excruciating internalization of the role of the faithful servant is accompanied by an incessant projection of that role in visual form. Just as Delilah's fixed social position facilitates Bea's limitless economic mobility, so too does the inscription of Delilah's image in a stubbornly static and permanent form facilitate the visual inscription of Bea/Colbert as "properly" white woman in the visual domain. Indeed, even when Bea falls short of her feminine functions as mother and (potential) wife, her image as a classically eroticized object of male desire is firmly established, bolstered in part by contrast to Delilah's dark, heavyset "mammy" image. In a manner reminiscent of her first appearance in the film, Delilah's image is perpetually captured and frozen in a wide-eyed, open-mouthed caricature that becomes the face on the pancake label which makes her white mistress's fortune. Moreover, in the course of the film that image is perpetually magnified and frozen, plastered on the surfaces of windows and logos, mass-produced on an assembly line production of pancake boxes and ultimately rendered a giant, permanent cut-out surrounded in neon, its only movement from lights that flash "Aunt Delilah" (the name and image) on and off and gradually flip her pancakes out of the pan and back again (figs. 7, 8, 9 and 10). It is this image of Delilah that remains after her death, visible in the distance from the rooftop garden where Bea and Jessie nostalgically stroll in their final display of evening wear (figs. 11, 12, 13 and 14).
 Picturizing RaceAs if to further animate that image of white woman as erotic spectacle, in other words,the film pulls out all the cinematic stops to blow up, flatten and immobilize the image of black woman.

(23)   The film's obsessive compulsion to immobilize Delilah as image is evidenced not only in this progression of images from the film's initial zoom-in to the final giant neon sign of the last scene, but even more elaborately in an early scene of the film when Bea and Delilah are preparing the empty space that will become the restaurant. As Bea begins to tell a sign maker about the sign she wants him to paint for her storefront, she is suddenly inspired by the sight of Delilah. The extraordinary production of this originary sign—one that will be replicated endlessly throughout the film—and Bea's tremendous investment in it, make its details worthy of close consideration.

View a Video Clip of this scene. (no longer available)

(24)   In her first moments as the new occupant of the storefront space she has managed to rent for her pancake business, Bea Pullman announces the consequences of this venture for Delilah. Eagerly placing the order for the sign she wants to have custom made, Bea describes: "I tell you what I want. I want a great big sign, with lots…." Bea's speech suddenly halts as her eyes, and then the painter's, fix on Delilah passing before them (fig. 15). A reverse medium shot reveals Delilah's movement through the room and Bea's offscreen voice calls out to her, "Delilah?" Delilah turns around in response, clearly confused: "Ma'am?" (fig. 16). Bea then commands simply: "Smile." Another medium shot of Delilah shows her continued confusion. With hand and facial gestures Bea prods her, "Smile, you know, smile" (fig. 17).
 Picturizing Race

Delilah, still confused, pulls her head back slightly and smiles gently (fig. 18). Still unsatisfied, Bea now directs her emphatically, and ungrammatically, "Oh no! Great big one!" (fig. 19). As if in full recognition of the request, Delilah laughs and complies, "Oh, yessum!", and her laughter now opens into an exaggerated open-mouthed smile with eyebrows lifted (fig. 20). Pointing with excitement, Bea continues to perfect the image: "That's it! Now, now turn to the right. Hold it!" (fig. 21). Seconding Bea's confirmation, the camera now cuts to Delilah's frozen expression in a close-up that instantly begins to zoom in for an even tighter frame of her smiling face (fig. 22). In this last shot the image not only expands, but the angles of Delilah's posture and the camera have shifted, her face and eyes now cast upward, her round cheeks shining in the light from above. Because Delilah remains perfectly still as the camera quickly zooms in on this pose, the effect is one of simultaneously discovering this image, fixing it and pulling it into sharp focus. While the camera lingers here Bea's voice affirms again from off screen: "That's it, that's what I want! A great big picture of Delilah looking like that and underneath 'Aunt Delilah's Homemade Pancakes.'" When we are finally released from the oppressive stasis of Delilah's oppressive image, we return to Bea, still talking, still gesturing, her movement accentuated by a short cape that flutters over her active arms and body. Quite remarkably, then, this scene openly displays the film's dominant visual logic. For just as Bea trains Delilah to become the image of the "great big sign" in her mind's eye, so the film perpetually orchestrates cinematic elaborations of this "great big picture of Delilah looking like that."38
 Picturizing Race

Indeed, while the film here posits Bea as the director molding the image, the sequence's cinematic echo of Delilah's introductory shots (framing her at a distance, reframing her more tightly, then zooming in quickly to fix the servant's smile) points us to the larger cinematic apparatus calling each and every shot.

(25)   The subsequent mass production of Delilah as "Aunt Delilah" (as the logo on signs, boxes, the neon billboard, etc.) quickly exceeds the original scenario such that Delilah is not simply the (carefully directed) model for the endless stream of visual representations, but the frozen mammy portrait of those two-dimensional images in turn becomes the model on which future representations of the "real" Delilah are based. In the scene directly following the one in which Bea coaxes Delilah to become the image for the shop window, the camera opens on the resulting sign in which Delilah's painted image is frozen as the smiling cook who flips pancakes (fig. 23a). Redoubling the effect, the camera then tracks up the shop window to reveal the living Delilah behind the glass, donning the very apron and chef's hat of the logo, and making pancakes not only for us to see, but also on display for the passers-by who stroll the boardwalk (figs. 23b and 23c). Taking this process of "life" imitating representation yet further, the camera moves inside the shop with the cut to a long shot that captures a side view of Delilah behind the griddle and the window, with the boardwalk flaneursframing her on the left, and another advertisement image of "Aunt Delilah" hanging on the wall just behind her at right (fig. 24).
 Picturizing Race

In short, set up in the shop window as a living boardwalk attraction, and literally surrounded by the multiple markers that visually define her as the mammy icon, Delilah's actual appearance here reads as nothing more than an animated version of the visual caricature she has become. My point, to be clear, is not merely that the image of "Aunt Delilah" is a caricature, but that Delilah herself is incessantly identified and defined through that image.

(26)   While Bea's original vision/projection of Delilah as logo visually inscribed the women's respective positions of dominance and submission, and the great pleasure taken in that relation by Bea and (so the film imagines) Delilah, the final versions with apron, spatula and perpetual smile, clarify that the pleasure these signs imagine resides largely in the master's fantasy of servitude.39 And even though the caption on the storefront window reads "Aunt Delilah's Pancake Shop," the film continues to display Bea as the true beneficiary of the entire arrangement. Despite the obvious proprietary deceit of the sign, it is increasingly apparent that Bea's "success"—at work, at home and before the camera—clearly depends on the immortalization of Delilah's mammy image. For that image allows Bea to function both as scheming capitalist andas erotic spectacle, the later identity explicitly softening the potential ideological distress provoked by the former. If, as feminist film theory has argued, the specular fetishization of (white) woman in Hollywood cinema classically tends to contain and disavow the ongoing threats to masculinity posed by her very existence,40 then the glamorization of Claudette Colbert throughout the film serves that classic function, and further wards off the potential disturbance posed by Bea's particular economic and domestic transgressions. She can play male roles at home and on the job, so long as she is visually displayed like a female star. What is more, conjuring that image in contrast to Delilah's has a dual function: it casts Bea's gender transgressions in a racialized light that sees her as the "properly" masterful white mistress (rather than as an improperly masterful woman), and it visually fixes Bea within the confines of classic femininity by contrast to Delilah's thoroughly deeroticized image.

Two Hundred Pounds of Black Mother: From Blood to Bodily Image

(27)   The benefits reaped by the film's hyper construction of Delilah's image are hardly confined to restoring Bea as properly "woman." Indeed, the racial implications of this play between the spectacles of white and black women are palpable well beyond the ways in which it sexually and economically mobilizes Bea Pullman. Returning to the "big problem" identified at the PCA in their reading of the script of Imitation, it is clear that the film provides its own (big) solutions there as well. Even though Peola still attempts, and temporarily succeeds at, passing in the film, the manner in which she does so—or rather, the manner in which we see her do so—works forcefully to contain the potential threat detected in the PCA files. While Peola explicitly states her problem as "look[ing] white and be[ing] black," the film manages to never quite allow us to see her as the former and always represents her in such a way as to convince us firmly of the latter. It does so narratively through an ongoing association of Peola's whiteness with deceit, and redoubles that visually by juxtaposing her misrepresentations with ongoing presentations of her mother as the embodiment of a (purportedly) authentic and transparent blackness.

(28)   The intelligence which the film grants a young Peola is quickly characterized as a capacity for devious behavior and inappropriate longings. Upon overhearing the girls test each other for a geography test, Bea remarks to Delilah that "Peola's smarter than Jessie." Delilah's unbelievable reply: "Yessum. We all starts out that way. We don't get dumb 'til later on." The only alternative to stupidity the film has to offer Peola is deviance. When the girls return home from school Peola runs through the house crying, "I'm not black, I'm not black, I won't be black." Distraught over Jessie's accusations to the contrary ("She called me black, Jessie called me that!"), Peola weeps in her mother's arms while her mother comforts her and urges her "to learn to take it." While even Bea recognizes something "mean" and "cruel" in the treatment Peola faces, Delilah practices only passive acceptance: "It ain't [Jessie's] fault Miss Bea. It ain't your'n and it ain't mine. I don't know exactly where the blame lies."

(29)   In the face of this kind of comfort, Peola chooses active defiance and begins at some point to pass for white at school. Despite the "cruel" consequences that await Peola if she is to live "honestly," the film construes her as one who inappropriately defies the "truth" of her racial identity. Indeed, the film excludes any serious consideration of the conditions or experience that leads Peola to pass, but instead jumps to scenes that catch her in the act, constructing her not as a victim of social injustice, but as having always already been a misbehaving liar. Her mother, by contrast, repeatedly exposes Peola's secret, arriving at Peola's school and later at her workplace to publicly interpellate her ("There's my baby!") as a black subject and (temporarily) end her deceptive transgressions. When Peola later disowns her mother in an effort to escape such markings and assume a permanent and indisputable white identity, the deception of her character is compounded by the cruelty of disowning her mother. Delilah openly suffers in this scene, weeping and begging: "It's too much to ask of me. I ain't got the spiritual strength to bear it. I can't hang on no cross. I ain't got the strength. You can't ask me to unborn my own child." Proving, once again, that Delilah has a privileged relation to truth, her words are soon borne out by her sudden ill health and death.

(30)   The narrative repetition of the theme of Delilah as the black truth haunting Peola's white lies finds its strongest support, however, in the image. We see this, for example, in the scene discussed above in which young Peola repudiates the "black" label Jessie projects onto her. For despite Peola's insistent refusals ("I'm not black! I'm not black! I won't be black!…I won't, I won't, I won't be black!"), and despite the contrast between the dark and light skin of Louise Beavers and the young (uncredited) actress playing Peola, the film forestalls the kind of rupturing of the meaning of race that Peola's utterance might invite by visually recontaining her, and her contestable racial identity, in her mother's large, dark body.
 Picturizing Race

As the scene culminates with Delilah's blind acceptance of the racial order ("I don't know where exactly the blame lies."), it also culminates with a variation on the now familiar close-up which was so carefully orchestrated in the scene just before this one. As Delilah delivers her lines, she fills the frame in a medium close-up—still wearing her chef's hat—cradling Peola like a baby in an embrace that virtually engulfs the child (fig. 25). Although we can at first see the small portion of Peola's face that is not buried in her mother's chest, after the camera twice cuts away to Jessie and Bea on the other side of the room it finally returns to Delilah in a tight, and lingering, close-up that literally excises Peola from the frame (fig. 26). As Delilah delivers the scene's final lines, the visual correlate to her verbal acceptance of the racial order is clear: Peola's questionable image is now supplanted by a somewhat quizzical, but nonetheless resigned, variation on the pancake logo's theme before the fade to complete blackness.

(31)   At this moment when the repeatedly accused "black" mother ("You! You! It's 'cause you're black! You make me black!") copes with her child's anger and pain, it is this sorrowful version of the pancake logo that simultaneously redefines the young actress' small, light-skinned body through the magnification of Beaver's large, dark one, and offers up the most intense visual expression of mother and daughter's emotional struggle. While the degradation of the mammy image could be said to amplify the degradation Peola resists, this image nonetheless simultaneously contains Peola's dilemma as yet another of the mammy's (dark) burdens. In so doing, I suggest, the sequence not only "allude[s] to the laws governing slavery, by which the child 'followed the condition' of the mother," as Smith rightly reminds us, but articulates the film's own cinematic updating of that tradition.41Whereas the "very very light" black father is never seen, it is the black mother's visible blackness that repeatedly enforces Peola's "true" racial identity, twice when Delilah arrives at the scenes of Peola's passing,42 and finally at her funeral when the massive and pointedly "black" spectacle of Delilah's funeral beckons Peola to publicly confess and accept her (maternal) blackness. What is more, the "truth" of Delilah's visible blackness is guaranteed in such scenes, as in the scene just described, by the affective saturation of the black maternal image.

(32)   The melodramatic plot line that takes Delilah's life as the price for Peola's transgressive desires might cause momentary suspicions as to whether Peola's "big problem" has in fact been solved. But, as the mass production of Delilah's image on shop windows and pancake boxes nation-wide quickly reminds us, that image persists. And it is that permanent image, the one the film so carefully manufactures well before and long after Delilah's death, that tames Peola's potentially volatile one.

(33)   The compounded effect of the many inscriptions of "Aunt Delilah" which insistently eclipse those of Peola is to define "black woman" ultimately as that image, an image that the film—like Bea's and the camera's initial discoveries of it ("That's it!")—posits as an immediately recognizable and transparent signifier of blackness. Not long after the zoom-in of the opening sequence that seems to immediately recognize and penetrate Delilah's face, the film openly thematizes the purportedly transparent meaning of Delilah's bodily image when Jessie first sees and points to her, calling out: "Horsey!" While this moment partially admits that baby Jessie clearly does not understand the meaning of racial difference, it nevertheless insists that that difference, however inaccurately named, is self-evident at first glance without any cultural mediation. This is, presumably, why the women laugh at the baby's outrageous mistake and why Bea doesn't scold or correct her: as the later scene with Peola verifies ("She called me black, Jessie called me that!"), Jessie will soon enough learn the "accurate" name of the difference she "naturally" sees.

(34)   Although my own reading of the cinematic production of Delilah's image diverges markedly from Lauren Berlant's, her formulation of the (national) problem posed by the mulatta subject points sharply to what I am claiming to be the particular solutions that Hollywood provides in its various textual treatments of Peola.43 Berlant writes:

the mulatta figure…gives the lie to the dominant code of juridical representation by repressing the 'evidence' the law would seek–a parent, usually a mother–to determine whether the light-skinned body claimed a fraudulent relation to the privileges of whiteness. By occupying the gap between official codes of racial naming and scopic norms of bodily framing conventional to the law and to general cultural practices, the American mulatta's textual and juridical representation after 1865 always designates her as a national subject, the paradigm problem citizen44

What I have tried to establish here is not only the degree to which cinema operates as a primary "cultural practice" through which scopic norms of "race" become "conventional," but further that the "gap" Berlant identifies between racial names and scopic norms is precisely where Hollywood steps in to provide the missing "evidence"—evidence which is in this case primarily, though multiply, visual, and which seeks to "prove" the certainty of racial identity by projecting Delilah's blackness in no uncertain terms. Both in the censorial writings off screen and in the perpetual visual constitution of Delilah and Peola and their relation on screen, Hollywood attempts to close the gap by projecting a racial image ("Aunt Delilah"…"looking like that") and a racial name ("black") in virtual, if not always literal, simultaneity. The film effectively welds them together as if they were one and the same, as if neither were a signifier but (together) a single signified delivered up for our immediate understanding. The zoom-ins, cut-ins and interminable close-ups of Delilah's "great big" black body and face, perpetually offer up an image that creates her "obvious" racial identity.45The familiarity of the Aunt Jemima image by 1934 only further works to produce the effect I am describing.46 Just as Bea "recognizes" Delilah's image in the moment in which she in fact projects it ("That's it!"), so the film's spectator is repeatedly invited to think, "Oh yes, I know who that is, that's …." Complete the ellipses as you wish: "Aunt Delilah," "Aunt Jemima," "the pancake mammy," etc.: in effect, "the (image of) black woman I know so well." And it is precisely that certainty and visibility ascribed to Delilah's blackness, I am suggesting, that works throughout the film to counterbalance and overcome Peola's potentially troubling image.

 Picturizing Race

(35)   This is the case even in what might otherwise be the most visually vexed sequences in the film, those in which the adult "light-skinned black body" declares and demands recognition of its whiteness.47 One such sequence begins nowhere less volatile than before a mirror. With her mother off screen at left, Peola gazes at her reflection at right and declares, "I want to be white, like I look. Look at me! Am I not white? Isn't that a white girl there?" (fig. 27a). At this critical moment when Peola herself demands the evidence, the film gives it up. No sooner has this speech begun than the camera moves to reframe it. With a few minor adjustments the camera moves first to include Delilah (fig. 27b) and then to excise the mirror (fig. 28). Peola still looks in its direction, but what we see is not her critical look at herself, but mother and daughter standing in a rhymed posture, wherein the larger, substantially darker mother's body nonetheless mimes the daughter's stance, as do, roughly, the lines and shapes of the women's dress and hair.

(36)   While visible differences between the women clearly remain in this scene, they are considerably narrowed in the one that follows it. When Delilah finds the still distraught Peola later that same evening, the film answers Peola's critical questions both with a speech in which her mother encourages her to accept her God-given blackness ("He made you black honey, don't be telling him his business…Accept it honey."),
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and with further visual efforts to assimilate Peola increasingly towards Delilah. The low lighting darkens her skin considerably from the scene before, and the remaining distance between the women's bodily images is gradually closed, first by Peola covering her own face in her hands as Delilah turns hers more into view, and then by a maternal embrace reminiscent of the earlier scene from Peola's childhood (figs. 29, 30 and 31). This time, the staging of the embrace immediately hides Peola's face and skin behind and within her mother's.48

(37)   Similar strategies intervene when Peola later returns home after her mother has discovered (and interrupted) her passing. Determined to live as a white woman, Peola asks her mother to cut all ties between them: "You mustn't see me, or own me, or claim me or anything. I mean, even if you pass me on the street, you'll have to pass me by." Peola's wish to be a white woman is further reflected in her continual interactions with Bea throughout this scene. Her speech addresses Delilah, but her glances continually focus and react to Bea. Nevertheless, despite the multiple threads tying Peola to Bea, the scene transpires not in the elegant upper stories of Bea's home, but in Delilah's modest basement quarters; and Delilah, like this setting, insists throughout that Peola and the viewer recognize their natural relation: "I can't give up my baby. I bore you, I nursed you. I loved you. I loved you more than you can guess. You can't ask your mammy to do this.…I'm your mammy! I ain't no white mother!…You can't ask me to unborn my own child."

 Picturizing Race

The camera again rhymes mother and daughter despite their dissimilar looks, visually tying them in a face to face composition for the better part of the scene (fig. 32). What is more, the camera further refuses us any chance to similarly compare Peola and Bea within a single shot. While these two are also visually rhymed across shots (their similarly tilted hats especially showing that Peola's aesthetic is modeled after Bea's), the only shot that contains them both is one in which Peola has her back to us as we see Bea (fig. 33). Thus, while the camera draws together the righteous and transgressive "black" women, we are never given a comparable shot which would allow us to study the visual difference/sameness of the "real" and "artificial" "white" women.

(38)   In so many ways, then, the film cinematically restricts the representation of Peola's "white" appearance, perpetually burying her in representations of her "black" mother, and, when necessary, removing her from the frame altogether. Indeed, although Peola's story provides the film's melodramatic core, she herself is excised from the diegetic scene—not once, but three times. In the first, her mother implores her to go to a college "down South," a gesture Peola clearly reads as an attempt to retrain her as a "black" subject ("A negro school?"). While her departure from that training signals her deviant return to whiteness, she thoroughly renounces that desire before film's end. In her return to and identification with her mother's (now dead) body at Delilah's funeral, she not only publicly names their relation ("Mother! Mother! Please forgive me!), but does so with an excess of emotion and spectacle (openly crying out from the crowd, weeping, throwing herself at the casket) that matches the force of her mother's earlier melodramatic performance at the daughter's severing of ties.49 The shots that follow in which we finally do see the adult Peola alongside Bea and Jessie now seem sanctioned by her spectacular reclamation of her "true" matrilineal identity.

(39)   Making that Peola's final appearance, however, the film takes no such risk of displaying Peola with the white women back at the rooftop garden, but instead simply informs us through a conversation between them that Peola has agreed to return to her ("negro") education. With Peola safely confined to an unseen space beyond the frame, the film's viewers are again, and finally, prevented from having the kind of visual-epistemological crisis that the sight of her might otherwise provoke. Instead, the image of her dark, caricatured mother as mammy flashes in the distance (figs. 11 and 13). Long after the film has finished, the image of "black woman" that is sure to be impressed on our retinas is that giant icon of Aunt Delilah/Jemima, "plump and happy and quick to laugh," blinking in perpetuity.
In light of what we know of the PCA's "considerable worry" over Peola's identity, it is not surprising that they too would prefer the image of Delilah just described to the potentially confounding image of Peola. This preference is made explicit by one reader of the script who sums it up as follows for her boss:

The only really gripping and dramatic thread in the story is that of Peola's anguish and her old mother's heartbreak over the whole miserable, unsolvable situation. With this element of the story removed the rest would become colorless.

Is it possible that the other part of the story could be more strongly built up—letting Peola die or sumpin' [sic] early in the struggle? The wisdom and comedy of old Delilah, the friendship and success of the two women and a number of things about it are interesting and might be made entertaining as a down to earth human interest drama. As written, however, the dark thread of Peola's tragedy seems to dwarf everything else.50

Like so many of the PCA's memos, this one would seem to contradict itself. At once it credits Peola's story as being "the only really gripping and dramatic thread" in the script, while at the same time it judges that story as being so "dark" as to need to be excised. What the analysis of Delilah's dark-skinned mammy image makes clear is that in fact Peola's tragedy is not "dark" enough. In a certain sense then, this reader is accurate in suggesting that the removal of Peola's story renders the rest of the film "colorless" insofar as the subordination of her image to the background, and the pulling out of Delilah to the foreground, removes "color" from the film as it had earlier threatened to unmask "race" for the construct it is. For as hideously cartoonish as Delilah's image is, the film dares to pass it off as the "life" which provides the contrast to Colbert's "imitation": whereas the ambitious white career woman leaves her toddler in day care despite the child's protests ("Don't want to go to day nursery, want to stay home with mommy!"), Delilah is painted as the authentic black mother par excellence, as Bea reads her on the day they first meet, "Just two hundred pounds of mother fighting to keep her baby." Yet insofar as Delilah is defined precisely as that "two hundred pounds" of black motherhood, that "big mountain," as Bea also describes her, we see that the film's insistence on Delilah's corporeality emphatically returns, distinguishing Delilah from Bea, and black femininity from white, through Delilah's bodily image.51
(40)   The cinematic interpretation of Hurst's story thus demonstrates that Hollywood's answer to the confounding image of Peola comes in the unequivocal image of her "black negro" mother—an image which cinematically insists on the join between black and negro, color and race. Or, to state the case more forcefully, the filmic inscriptions of Delilah relocate the meaning of race in and through the bodily image. Whereas the PCA's writings on Peola drew upon discourses of the invisible (blood and ancestry) to shore up the meaning of "race," the film deploys an array of cinematic devices to forcibly shift the locus of racial identity to the domain of the visible (the color, size and shape of the body). In so doing, moreover, it posits "race" as not only an essence, but an essence guaranteed by an image.

Pictures that Give "Life" to "Race"

(41)   That Delilah is the answer to Peola is evident not only by her image, but also by her speech. Returning briefly to the PCA's file on Imitation of Life, we find that the debates regarding Peola and miscegenation are eventually supplanted there by an aggressive exchange regarding the authenticity of Delilah's speech. After months of cordial back and forth over objections about Peola, the Vice President of Universal, Robert Cochrane, blows up at Breen for the first time over rulings on specific lines of Delilah's dialogue. Outraged by PCA rulings on the need to delete such phrases as "Mah Lo'dy" and "De Lawb haab mercy" on religious grounds (rulings which Breen will later characterize as "routine observations" regarding "any reference to the Supreme Being"), Cochrane wails:

Everybody knows that the colored people say "Mah Lo'dy" and "De Lawd haab mercy" and "Ah, Gawd"; and everybody knows that it is perfectly natural for colored people and white people to say "I'll swear to God I'll pay." Everybody knows that this is not intended as profanity and that it is not a desecration of anything…

Frankly I don't believe that any fair minded, decent minded or broad minded Catholic, Jew or Gentile can object to these particular things I have mentioned—because they are just as much an accepted part of life as breathing is.

… I am privately asking you not to make it utterly impossible for the studios to make pictures which reflect life, and by this I do not mean the dirty part of life.52

Cochrane's relentless assertion of the authenticity and realism of Delilah's speech would seem to indicate several things. The fact that the debate is now limited to a specific set of lines suggests that the studio and the PCA are in mutual agreement on the overall look and sound of Delilah. And, read with the hindsight of the film that did get made and the history of picturizing race in Hollywood that would follow it, Cochrane's righteous insistence would seem to signal (loudly and clearly) that the institution of Hollywood was mustering all its forces to put down the problems posed by picturizing Peola, and supplanting them with its own naturalized set of racial fabrications. At the same time, however, we could read Cochrane's emphatic tones otherwise, and note that perhaps he protests too much. For just as the PCA's struggle to name Peola threatened to expose the discursive nature of "race," so the film's insistent use of close-ups, zooms, logos and neon signs similarly threatens to announce that "Delilah" is herself a sign. Given that semiotic risk, the studio executive's zeal can also be read as defensive posturing. That such posturing insists on naturalizing Delilah's speech, suggests yet another conversation about the cinematic means with which Hollywood would work not only to picturize, but also to vocalize "race" as something which "everybody knows…is perfectly natural."


This essay has grown in several phases and owes much of its life to several sets of readers. I am extremely grateful to Jennifer Culbert and Patricia Reilly for tireless and vital readings of multiple drafts, especially in the formative phase, and to Carol Clover, Michael Rogin and Kaja Silverman who each gave me substantial, and substantially different, things to consider as it developed. I would also like to thank the editors ofGENDERS for their thorough response to an early version that helped me considerably with the expanded revision and to Bob Bohl for providing clarity at every stage.

  1. While attempts to censor filmic treatment of miscegenation date back to the debates surrounding the reception of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the film industry's first attempt to systematically censor miscegenation came in 1927 when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) adopted its list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls." Specifically, the sixth "don't" of eleven of "those things [that] shall not appear in pictures…irrespective of the manner in which they are treated," targeted "Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races)." Variations of this clause were later inherited by the industry's more elaborate Production Code of 1930, and again by the more strictly enforced Production Code of 1934. The Code's ultimate ban on miscegenation, which was not lifted until 1956, mandated that "Miscegenation (sex relationship between the white and black races) is forbidden." The "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" and the Production Code are reprinted, among other places, in Raymond Moley, The Hays Office, (1945; rpt.: Jerome S. Ozer, 1971), 240-248 and Garth Jowett, Film, The Democratic Art, (Boston: Focal Press, 1976), 466-472.back
  2. This and subsequent "PCA" citations are taken from documents in the files of the Production Code Administration collection, housed at the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California. PCA, Imitation of Life file, memo re "Material Submitted to This Office But Not Scheduled For Immediate Production," April 2, 1934. The film itself, which I will consider at length below, is not currently available on videotape or disc, but occasionally airs on cable movie channels. An incomplete print is also available for viewing at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles.back
  3. PCA, Imitation of Life file, Hays letter to Universal, May 18, 1934. Breen was the ultimate authority at the office of the Production Code Administration in California at this time, while Will Hays oversaw the larger parent organization of the PCA, the MPPDA, from New York.back
  4. The second of these formulations comes from an original draft of the initial rejection letter that was, according to a hand written note across the top, "Not sent/ to be rewritten." The first comes from what is presumably the revised rejection letter. Although no original copy of that revision appears in the file, Hays quotes from it at length in his own appeal to the studio executives, including "Mr. Laemmle, Senior and Junior[, to] give it your personal attention." The very fact that Breen withheld his original letter, something I've never otherwise seen him do, is obviously indicative of the unusual anxiety surrounding this particular project. PCA, Imitation file, Breen letter to Universal, March 9, 1934 as cited in Hays letter to Universal, May 18, 1934; [unsent] Breen letter to Universal, March 9, 1934. Emphasis mine.back
  5. PCA, Imitation file, Hays letter to Universal, May 18, 1934. Emphasis mine.back
  6. In this light, my project could be characterized as an attempt to interrogate cinema's role in what Robyn Wiegman has recently called "the history of the visible that undergirds [Western] fashionings of race." Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995), 24. Urging us to "take seriously the notion of race as a fiction—as a profound ordering of difference instantiated at the sight of the body," Wiegman reminds us that "what the eye sees, and how we understand that seeing in relation to physical embodiment and philosophical and linguistic assumptions, necessitates a broader inquiry into the articulation of race, one that takes the visual moment as itself a complicated and historically contingent production" (24). My project examines the cinematic apparatus and especially the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema as especially crucial sites of such production.back
  7. I should note that this argument, like this essay, emerges within the context of a larger study of American cinema's ongoing representation and repression of miscegenation. Another chapter considers a much broader range of over one hundred PCA files related to the miscegenation clause, and it is in the context of my reading of those texts, as well as of numerous other films, that I make this larger claim about Hollywood's contribution to the construction of race. I focus on the case of the 1934 version ofImitation of Life here because it provides some of the most striking evidence for the argument.back
  8. My initial thinking about cinema's visual construction of race was largely prompted by Frantz Fanon's formulation of the psychic construction of race in his ironically titled chapter "The Fact of Blackness" inBlack Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967). Fanon's meditations on the meaning of "blackness" are especially pertinent to the project at hand in many respects. In his relentless attention to the subjective effects of cultural representations, Fanon is at once critically aware of the representational "nature" of the racial images that haunt him ["I could no longer laugh, because I already knew that there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity…I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: 'Sho' good eatin'" (112)], and yet at the same time he struggles with the psychic reality-effects of such representations, effects which his critical insight cannot easily overcome ["My blackness was there, dark and unarguable. And it tormented me, pursued me, angered me" (117)]. What is more, Fanon envisions the projection of these representations through explicitly visual metaphors: he is spotted on the street ["Look, a Negro!" (109)] and cannot escape the sense of "being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes" (116). Thus, Fanon implicitly posits a white gaze, an abstracted notion of vision with literal moments of instantiation, which fixes him in "a racial epidermal schema" (112). I detour with Fanon at length here because, as we will see, his privileging of the particularly visual mechanisms through which racial representations assert themselves will become increasingly central to my own argument. Fanon obviously already knows of the appropriateness of including the cinematic apparatus in such discussions, as he culminates his chapter with a visit to the cinema: "I cannot go to a film without seeing myself. I wait for me. In the interval, just before the film starts, I wait for me. The people in the theater are watching me, examining me, waiting for me" (140). My essay aims to further interrogate our understanding of the images and identities so heavily anticipated at the movie theater.back
  9. Soon after discussions of the project began in Hollywood, Will Hays voiced his own concern from New York in a single sentence letter to Breen: "Dear Joe: I note your worry about the possible miscegenation angle in the Universal proposed picture The Imitation of Life and know you will watch this carefully." Continuing this tone, letter after letter from Breen, Hays and other members of the PCA is riddled with their "grave…concern" over the script's "very dangerous," "definitely dangerous," "extremely dangerous subject." PCA, Imitation file, resume of meeting with Universal, March 9, 1934; [unsent] letter from Breen to Universal, March 8, 1934; Breen letter to Universal, July 20, 1934; memo for the files, March 9, 1934.back
  10. PCA, Imitation file, Breen letter to Universal, July 20, 1934. Emphasis mine.back
  11. PCA, Imitation file, memo re "Material Submitted to This Office But Not Scheduled For Immediate Production," April 2, 1934.back
  12. As if to further verify for us the PCA's general uncertainty on the subject at this stage, this last spelling of the word is incorrectly typed "myscegenation"—a hand-written correction changes the error. PCA,Imitation file, interoffice memo from J. B. Lewis to Breen, March 10, 1934. Emphasis mine.back
  13. In a characteristically authoritative voice that would publicly deny any such interpretive confusion or ambiguity, Joseph Breen claimed in a written annual report that: "the provisions of the Code are reasonable and, consequently, require only reasonable interpretation." Cited in Moley, 96-97.back
  14. PCA, Imitation file, "MEMORANDUM FOR MR. BREEN re-MISCEGENATION," March 13, 1934.back
  15. As I show elsewhere, it is inaccurate insofar as there were films made, and films discussed by the PCA and its predecessor, the Studio Relations Committee, which dealt with interracial sex relationships. However, as will become increasingly apparent, insofar as the definition of "miscegenation" implicitly at work in the PCA's evaluation of Imitation of Life was entirely different, it makes sense that the staffer could not find precedents in the Code files which mirrored the "present problem." I discuss the ongoing evolution of Hollywood's miscegenation clause and its (uneven) application and interpretation in the third and fourth chapters ofHollywood's Fantasy of Miscegenation, diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1997 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1997).back
  16. PCA, Imitation file, interoffice memo to Breen, March 10, 1934; Breen letter to Universal, March 9, 1934 as quoted in Hays letter to Universal, May 18, 1934. Emphasis mine.back
  17. In fact, in the staffer's research memo for Breen on the subject of miscegenation, the one concrete lead he did find was a quote from Hays from 1928 warning that it is "'inadvisable always to show white women in scenes with negroes where there is any inference of miscegenation or social relationship.'" The PCA's certainty about the pairing of black men and white women, as I discuss in the previously cited chapters, explains the censors' clarity in ruling on the lynching sequence.back
  18. PCA, Imitation file, memo for the files, March 9, 1934.back
  19. Ibid.back
  20. PCA, Imitation file, interoffice memo from Breen to McKenzie, March 26, 1934. Emphasis mine. Similar language is used in a resume of March 9, 1934 in which the story is described as "based upon the very serious social problem which comes as a result of miscegenation."back
  21. While in the 1934 film we hear only from Delilah that Peola's "pappy was a very very light-colored man," in Hurst's novel we read a few different references to his "white blood." However these references are also quite vague, and contradictory. At one point Delilah alleges that he was "mixed up with plenty of white blood," and a page later that there was "mostly nigger in my nigger." The fullest explanation comes when Delilah tells Bea that Peola's "pap was born of two Virgini darkies, which ain't sayin' dar mayn't have been plenty of white blood in him, down dar whar white blood in nigger veins comes cheaper'n moonshine whisky." Thus, even when the novel confesses the "white blood" that the film will not, it posits it as being at least three generations prior to Peola, and even then cannot be sure when, or if, it was actually "mixed." Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life (1933; New York: Harper and Row, 1990), 119, 120.back
  22. One could argue further that the confusion between interracial desire and cross-racial identification is not profoundly surprising in light of psychoanalytic accounts of subjectivity which suggest that desire always requires identification—that one subject's desire for another subject is predicated upon an identification with that other subject. Such accounts suggest that any desire across racial boundaries already implies an identification across those boundaries, and thus that fantasies of miscegenationalwayspotentially entertain the possibility of cross-racial identification. While that possibility invites yet other conversations about the psychic and power dynamics of such identifications, conversations that exceed the argument at hand, it also offers another clue to understanding the high psychic and ideological stakes not only of Hollywood's ban on miscegenation, but on all such bans, formal and informal, legal and illegal. For psychoanalytic accounts of the relations between identification and desire, see especially Kaja Silverman who reads Freud, Lacan, Laplanche and others, to pursue the psychic and political ramifications of her claim that "identity and desire are so complexly imbricated that neither can be explained without recourse to the other." Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins, (New York: Routledge, 1992), 6. For discussions of cross-racial identification in particular, see especially Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), Eric Lott,Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and Harryette Mullen, "Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness," Diacritics 24.2-3 (Summer-Fall 1994): 71-89.back
  23. While this piece concentrates on the racial identities constructed on screen, the larger chapter from which it is taken ultimately turns more squarely to a consideration of spectatorial belief. See chapter 4 ofHollywood's Fantasy of Miscegenation.back
  24. PCA, Imitation file, McKenzie letter to Breen, April 3, 1934.back
  25. PCA, Imitation file, miscellaneous correspondence written by PCA staff members: March 9, 1934; March 9, 1934; March 10, 1934; March 10, 1934; March 10, 1934; March 22, 1934; April 2, 1934; April 3, 1934; May 18, 1934; May 18, 1934; May 18, 1934; June 7, 1934; and June 26, 1934.back
  26. For a related discussion of attempts to construct race in legal texts, see Eva Saks, "Representing Miscegenation Law," Raritan8.2 (1988): 39-69. Saks' discussion of the historical and rhetorical force of the metaphor of "blood" is especially helpful in the present context as it both: maps out the ways in which "blood essentialized race" as an internal, inherited, invisible thing (and hence the wave of miscegenation law passed during Reconstruction "internalized the feudal economy the Civil War had supposedly ended"); and indirectly sets the stage for us to consider the particular mechanisms whereby cinema, unlike law, can constitute race as something visible (48). My thanks go to Linda Williams for bringing to my attention, and providing me with a copy of, Saks' essay.back
  27. PCA, Imitation file, memo for the files, March 9, 1934.back
  28. Daniel J. Leab, From Sambo to Superspade (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976), 109.back
  29. It is clear that at a certain point the censors focused their objections on the lynching sequence and eased up on the questions surrounding Peola. The removal of the lynching sequence alleviated the former concern, but what exactly pushed them to relent on the latter is not documented. A late status report on the project reluctantly rules out the validity of reading Peola's story as a violation of the miscegenation clause: "This script presents indirectly the subject of miscegenation. Although there is none of it in the picture, it portrays a lightcolored negro girl who desires to go white. This, however, is not the main theme of the story. It appears to be a matter of policy more than of Code…the matter is still open." PCA, Imitation file, Wingate memo to McKenzie, June 26, 1934.back
  30. As one reviewer described her: "Miss Colbert looks like a million, giving the character a superb treatment and wearing gowns that will make the femme fans gurgle and gasp in admiration." Hollywood Reporter,November 3, 1934. This comment not only identifies Colbert's erotic visibility, but, like much recent work on film melodrama, suggests that the specular politics here are working as much for the pleasure of female spectators as male ones.back
  31. Leab, 109.back
  32. Hurst, 62.back
  33. Valerie Smith similarly isolates the camera's delineation of Bea's movement and Delilah's "stillness" in these opening shots, reading it as a visual articulation of their respective economic and social positions: "Bea is associated with economic mobility and progress, Delilah is immediately constructed as a figure of stability, and of timeless, mythic qualities," more specifically, "the myth…of the mammy in the plantation south." Valerie Smith, "Reading the Intersection of Race and Gender in Narratives of Passing,"Diacritics 24.2-3 (Summer-Fall 1994): 47. My reading of this sequence is clearly in keeping with Smith's, and I take this opportunity to note my extreme indebtedness to her insights throughout that same essay about passing narratives and the confounding figure of the "light-skinned black body" (44). I see my analysis of this scene, and of the film as a whole, departing from Smith's in two significant ways. First, as will become increasingly apparent, I am attempting to push the visual analysis to specify how the film not only differentiates the women's social and economic positions, but defines their racial identities as well through cinematic means, and effectively legitimates their social positions in the process through the ongoing cinematic "picturization" and naturalization of "race." Second, as my reading of Delilah's original appearance as the (racial/economic) solution to Bea's (gender) trouble indicates, I am also interested in how the film, like so many others, doesn't merely "gloss over" the historical differences between black and white women in its continued equations between its white and black female characters, as Smith later argues (51), but how this glossing over in part results from, and is necessitated by, the film's deployment of racial fantasies (the mammy most prominently) as a means to contain its overt anxiety about the instability of raced and gendered categories. That is, I will propose, the film simplifies and essentializes Delilah as mammy in large part to control and contain Bea's transgressions of the boundaries of "woman" as well as Peola's of "black." This certainly doesentail an erasure of history, but one that takes on a life of its own to profoundly influence how this film constructs categories of race and gender in perpetual relation.back
  34. As in Douglas Sirk's 1959 version of the film, Delilah, desperate for work and happy to serve, volunteers to take care of Bea and Jessie in exchange for a place for she and Peola to stay.back
  35. In evidence of her frequent casting in this position, one film historian reports that press releases habitually referred to Beavers as "'a black angel.'" Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, (New York: Bantam, 1974), 66.back
  36. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis reads Bea's repetition of Jessie's childhood lines, and the film generally, as the expression of a nostalgic desire for "that untroubled unity" of mother and child in "an originary moment of dual reciprocity…isolat[ed] from all social context, from all difference and disturbance." Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, "Imitations of Life: The Black Woman's Double Determination as Troubling 'Other,'" Literature and Psychology34.4 (1988): 48. Although Flitterman-Lewis' analysis of this scene as one of intensely Imaginary longings is quite convincing, I would question her assumption that such desires effectively escape the social contexts and constraints that have operated throughout the film, such that, as she puts it, "race as an issue has disappeared entirely" by the film's end. As my emphasis below on Delilah's looming neon image that flashes over this scene and the wealth that permeates the white women's mise-en-scene (rooftop garden, gowns that sparkle and shimmer in the night, etc.) suggests, I would argue instead that the fantasy of maternal unity can only return with the possibility of success so denied it in the opening scene becauseDelilah has been, and in her new iconic form, remains, on the scene as the facilitator of Bea's economic and maternal achievements. Put another way, for all the scene'sdesire to escape difference, we could only read it as in fact doing so if we were to ignore the signifiers of whiteness and affluence that so visibly mark it from start to finish. At the same time, it is implicit from my analysis of how this film "picturizes" race that it is in fact blackness which the film so relentlessly works to make visible, and whiteness appears comparatively unmarked. In this sense the film, and the PCA's treatment of it, can be clearly seen to contribute to the ongoing cultural mechanisms through which, as Richard Dyer puts it, "black people are marked as black (are not just 'people')" and "whiteness secures white power by making it hard, especially for white people and their media, to 'see' whiteness." Richard Dyer, "White," Screen 29.4 (Autumn 1988): 46.back
  37. As we will see below, the white women's debt to Delilah is visually inscribed as well in her neon image that hovers over this scene.back
  38. Moments later, when Bea has finished detailing her order to the sign-maker, she darts through the room only to bump into a frozen Delilah, standing statue-like in the pose solicited, but never dismissed, by her mistress. Bea has a good chuckle at Delilah's "failure" to understand that the moment has passed and, giggling, breaks Delilah momentarily out of the pose: "All right, all right. It's all over. It's all over." The critical irony, of course, is that Delilah's indefinite holding of the pose signals all too clearly, and correctly, that this newly fixed image will in fact never end. Lauren Berlant reads this scene, and its possible ironies, quite differently. She claims that "the grotesque hyper-embodiment of Delilah in this sequence violates her own and the film's aesthetic codes: I feel certain that her graphic decontextualization is specifically designed to allude to and to ironize Aunt Jemima, in her role as a site of American collective identification." Lauren Berlant, "National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life," Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, ed. Hortense J. Spillers (New York: Routledge, 1991), 125. While I don't dispute that the film clearly alludes to Aunt Jemima, I am unconvinced that this sequence, or any others in the film, "ironize" the tradition in the sense that Berlant suggests. In this case, for example, although I find the aesthetic codes excessive, and excessively visible, I see them, as my reading of the rest of the film demonstrates, as thoroughly in keeping with the visual logic set out from the film's opening scene to its final one, each of which, like so many in between, appears quite comfortable in defining Delilah as and through her mammy image. Although traces of Delilah's pain and suffering do surface, as Berlant argues, those discursive marks seem to pale, and ultimately to disappear, under the weight (literal and figurative) of the manufactured image of "Aunt Delilah." And, in light of the equally visible mammy ideologies that are laid over that mammy image, I read the excess of the entire production not as a sign of "interference with the Aunt Jemima in Delilah," but rather as an indication that Hollywood has not only replicated, but massively elaborated the racial-sexual-economic "fantasy condensed in the face and history of Aunt Jemima" that Berlant identifies in the novel's production of the Delilah logo. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the scene sandwiched between the success montage that begins with "Aunt Delilah" as the logo on endless boxes and culminates with our first sight of the neon sign (figs. 7, 8, 9 and 10). For it is precisely in the midst of this representational escalation that we hear Delilah object to her mistress' belated offer of a (meager) portion of the profits, troubled that her own house and car will prevent her from caring for "Miss Bea." For Berlant, the surrounding mass-production images "of disembodied human labor" are another example of Aunt Jemima "interference" because "they are surrounded by history: they are produced in history" (125). To me, the "history" of the scene around which such images are centered is no less fantasmatic, and no more ironic, than other Hollywood renditions of the faithful servant. Despite our disagreements about such images, however, I nonetheless find Berlant's readings of the ways in which each of the three Imitationtexts variously figures (commodity) forms of disembodiment as the (imagined) way out of disenfranchisement for black and white female subjects extremely insightful. Especially relevant to my discussion is her isolation of the novel's construction of Delilah as the teacher of "Jemimesis," "who trains 'imitations' or 'replicas' of herself in the 'University of Delilah'" where "she teaches how to commodify the 'mammy's' domestic aura"–a process that further works to free B. Pullman of the limits of corporeality (120). I would suggest that in the 1934 film it is the cinematic apparatus itself which voraciously takes over, and fundamentally alters, this "Jemimetic" role, not teaching other black women how to be "Aunt Delilah," but teaching Hollywood viewers how to read "black woman" in and through her filmic image.back
  39. While the logos themselves remove Bea from the scene and imagine the pleasure to be Delilah's own, Bea's explicit molding of Delilah's "great big" smile, and her naming that image as her own desire ("That's it, that's what I want!) make it all the more obvious that the film's incessant projection of the servant's smile is a projection of the master's pleasure. What is more, the film's spectator is repeatedly invited to consume Delilah's image in a position most comparable to Bea's, as we too are invited to take visual pleasure in images that constitute the black female subject as both complicit and satisfied with her social position. The film's alignment of our look, Bea's and the camera's in this regard not only points up the "whiteness" of the spectatorial position carved out by the film (in a clear case in which "whiteness" works to sustain a position of social and economic dominance through a "racial" category), but also, I think, takes us to the heart of what can make such representations backfire–that is, what can make them produce such excruciating unpleasure for spectators who resist, or are at the very least unsettled by, the racial politics and economies upon which they depend. While such questions require more attention elsewhere, I would suggest for the moment that such positions of resistance cannot merely be determined by viewers' racial identifications, as discussions of critical black spectatorship have perhaps too quickly assumed, but must certainly depend on political, economic, and sexual identifications as well. See Manthia Diawara, "Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance," Screen 29.4 (1988): 66-76; and bell hooks, "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators," inBlack Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 115-131.back
  40. Cf. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,"Screen 16.3 (1975); rpt. in Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). While the profusion of articles and books that have followed Mulvey's original insights are far too numerous to list here, Kaja Silverman's opening chapter of The Acoustic Mirror is especially useful for its elaboration of the psychic and philosophical ramifications of Mulvey's claims. Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988). For a more recent and diverse range of essays and bibliographies in the field, see Linda Dittmar, Diane Carson, Janice R. Welsh, eds., Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).back
  41. The distinction is not only important for understanding the ways in which new technologies update old racial traditions, but also for clarifying the differing stakes. Whereas laws that made slaves out of the offspring of black women and white men worked to fend off potential social and economic claims that "mixed" subjects might otherwise make to white property and privilege, here the potentially unstable site is the sight of the body itself and the structure in greatest jeopardy is the very visual-epistemological system that claims to racially mark it.back
  42. Without taking the time here to enact detailed readings of these scenes, I will point out how the stubbornly visual relation between mother and daughter continues. Both at school and at the store where Peola works, it is the sight of her mother (by teacher, classmates and customers) that ultimately outs Peola. In both scenes the primacy of the visual in this process is emphasized by significant framings of mother and daughter through doors and windows: at school Delilah is first shot through the window of the classroom door, in an appearance that clearly echoes her original one in the film. And in the adult passing scene, Peola's visual deviance is underscored by a noticeable variation on the theme of Delilah displayed in the pancake shop window. Bea and Delilah find Peola in another shop window, but she appears not as the black mammy/laborer, but rather as the white beauty/cashier. Though clearly not the actual proprietor, like Bea she is clearly positioned (with her back to the window and behind a glass cigar case at the cash register) to take both the erotic gaze, and the money, of the male customers. Hence, the film relentlessly maps together the imposition, and transgression, of the women's racial, economic and visual positions.back
  43. Where we diverge, as my earlier note suggests, is on the question of the 1934 film's "solution."back
  44. Berlant, 113.back
  45. I am thinking of this "obviousness" in Althusser's sense of the word as that which clearly indicates the mark and effect of ideology. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 171-172.back
  46. For a discussion of the history of Aunt Jemima, see Berlant, especially 122.back
  47. Cf. note 33.back
  48. In the expanded version of this essay I discuss the repetition of this trope of the mulatta's visual and symbolic return to the black maternal body in Pinky (1949) as well.back
  49. Although the visual logic of Sirk's remake of the film trades in the pancake plot and imagery for those of show business, it retains the tropes of the black mother's visible blackness racially outing her daughter in the sequences of passing and in the repetition of the spectacularly "black" funeral at the film's end. While both films make a point of having the black mother voice her desire for a big, showy funeral early on (Delilah says: "I want them colored folks' eyes to bulge out"), Sirk adds not only the costume and color of a characteristically Sirkian mise-en-scene, but also Mahalia Jackson's singing, in a voice and close-up that appear quite suddenly and without the disguise of any character, as if to further amplify the effect of black authenticity in the scene. In addition to Berlant and Flitterman-Lewis, who both discuss the 1934 and the 1959 versions of the film, for discussions of the latter see especially Judith Butler, "Lana's 'Imitation': Melodramatic Repetition and the Gender Performative," Genders 9 (1990): 1-18 and Marina Heung, "'What's the Matter with Sara Jane?': Daughters and Mothers in Sirk's Imitation of Life," Cinema Journal26.3 (Spring 1987): 21-43.back
  50. PCA, Imitation file, Alice Freed memo to Breen, undated.back
  51. The first quote comes from Bea who, upon first hearing Delilah's story of trying to find work and take care of her unwanted child, pronounces the other woman's predicament as "Just two hundred pounds of mother fighting to keep her baby." Underscoring the film's emphasis on her own bodily form, Delilah obligingly corrects, "two hundred and forty, yessum" and moments earlier insists "I's very deceiving as to proportion, I don't eat like I look, it's the truth!" Hollywood's extreme investment in the size of this black female body is further exposed in Bogle's account of Beavers' "steady battle…to stay overweight" for the sake of her film career, a battle that lead her to "force-feed diets, compelling herself to eat beyond her normal appetite" and, when that wasn't enough, being padded and stuffed "to look more like a full-bosomed domestic." Although Bogle's last description seems on the verge of itself forgetting that black female domestics aren'tnecessarily "full-bosomed," he clearly emphasizes elsewhere that "the image of the jolly black cook was completely manufactured." Of particular note here is his revelation that Beavers "detested kitchen work and abhorred pancakes" such that "professional white cooks had to prepare the food. Then Beavers was situated at the stove, smile intact and pancake flipper in hand." While the implied assumption that other actors might actually cook their own onscreen food seems dubious, and again leads me to question the degree to which the naturalization of the mammy image lingers in Bogle's own critical text, I obviously welcome his critical point and the historical details which further expose the cinematic constitution of this black female body. Bogle, 63.back
  52. PCA, Imitation file, Cochrane letter to Breen, July 27, 1934. Emphasis mine.back