Corrections or additions?
This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the September 20,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Women, Race, and Film
It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are. And it’s
even worse to pretend, to lie. Sarah Jane has to learn that the Lord
must’ve had his reasons for making some of us white and some of us
black. . . How do you explain to your child that she was born to be
These words are spoken to Lana Turner by Juanita Moore in the 1959
film, "Imitation of Life." The film was the second Hollywood
version of Fannie Hurst’s best-selling novel of the same title. Moore
plays an African-American mother, Annie Johnson, who is trying to
explain to her friend and benefactor Lora Meredith, played by Turner,
why she is so upset that her young daughter has attempted to pass
herself off at school as a white girl. Lora, despite being
remains largely uncomprehending and is only able to utter weak
such as, "children always pretend."
This inability to communicate between two friends separated by race,
culture, and opportunity is just one of the topics that will be
in "Imitating Life: Women, Race, and Film, 1932-2000," a
at Princeton University, Friday and Saturday, September and 23.
Life" will examine Hollywood’s portrayal of issues of race and
gender by focusing on the two film versions of the novel, written
by Fannie Hurst, that captured the imagination of readers — it
was serialized before appearing in book form — and of filmgoers.
Fannie Hurst was in fact Jewish; for some time African-American writer
Zora Neale Hurston worked for Hust and they became friends.
The conference begins on Friday, September 22, at 2 p.m., with
of the 1934 film by John Stahl and the 1959 version by Douglas Sirk
of "Imitation of Life" in the Stewart Film Theater at 185
Nassau. Actress Halle Berry, who starred with Warren Beatty in
and in "X-Men," gives the conference keynote address on Friday
at 8 p.m. in McCosh 50. Berry’s most recent project was an HBO
about the life of Dorothy Dandridge. Dandridge was the first
woman to earn an Oscar nomination for best actress, but ended her
life by committing suicide at age 42. Berry will discuss her own
in producing the Dandridge story, and the parallels between the
of Dandridge’s time and the present day.
The conference continues Saturday, September 23, beginning at 9 a.m.,
in McCosh 50, with three panels of influential filmmakers, scholars,
and authors discussing issues of women, race, and Hollywood’s
Saturday’s first session will feature a discussion on friendships
across color lines, women’s entrepreneurship, and the continuing need
to "pass" in American society. Panelists will be Thadious
M. Davis from Vanderbilt University, Cheryl Wall from Rutgers
and Ann Douglas from Columbia. The second session will attempt to
answer the question of whether "Imitation of Life" could be
updated to fit our own times. Film directors Charles Burnett and Julie
Dash, along with Jill Nelson, a Hunter College journalism professor,
will offer their views on whether or not this is possible, and if
so, how it could be achieved. The conference concludes with a panel
discussion on censorship and the cinematic portrayal of
Panelists include Richard Dyer of the University of Warwick, Valerie
Smith from UCLA, and Thomas W. Cripps, Morgan State.
Hurst’s 1932 novel "Imitation of Life," as well
as its two film versions, may seem dated and melodramatic by the
of today’s cool, contemporary culture. Yet the conference organizers
believe they can serve as valuable tools in examining changes in race
relations and advancements for women in American society over the
past 65 years. They also offer broad hints as to just how much more
ground there is to cover.
Stahls’s 1934 film adaptation closely follows Hurst’s original story
line in which an African-American woman and a white woman become
in an extremely successful business venture based on the black woman’s
old family recipe for pancakes. Reminiscent of recent success stories
about the chocolate chip cookie businss, Hurst wrote of two
women of vastly different life experiences. The 1934 Stahl movies
was the first serious treatment of the race question in a movie from
a major Hollywood studio and the first time a major motion picture
featured black actors in substantive roles. It also reflected the
film industry’s new censorship codes regarding the depiction of racial
mixing on screen.
By 1959, Hollywood no longer chose to represent a joint business
across the races. Essentially a star vehicle for Lana Turner, Sirk’s
1959 version of "Imitation of Life" limits the black woman’s
role to that of a housekeeper and dresser to a white woman who pursues
an acting career and eventually becomes a star. The pivotal crisis
in all three versions, is the fact that the black woman’s unusually
light-skinned daughter enjoys the American privileges of whiteness
and eventually rejects her self-sacrificing, dark-skinned mother.
Noliwe Rooks, a Princeton historian and associate director of its
Program in African American Studies, is among the conference
She says she hopes the conference will "allow people to explore
issues of race, and ethnicity, and work, along color lines. "We
are using the films to see how these issues have changed between the
’30s to the ’50s, and then up until now. These are important issues
that transfer to Latinos and Asians and the society at large." The
conference is free, but preregistration is recommended.
— Jack Florek
Program in African-American Studies , 185 Nassau Street & McCosh
50, 609-258-4270. Two-day conference begins with screenings of two
versions of "Imitation of Life" at the film theater, 185
At 8 p.m., actress Halle Berry gives the conference keynote address
in McCosh 50. On Saturday, September 23, panels and discussion begins
at 9 a.m. in McCosh 50. Free, but space is limited. Register on the
Saturday’s program features three panels of distinguished filmmakers
and authors. Panelists include Columbia University Professor Ann
(author of "Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s"
and "The Feminization of American Culture"), Harlem
experts Thadious M. Davis and Cheryl Wall, producer and director
Burnett ("To Sleep With Anger," "Killer of Sheep,"
"The Wedding") and filmmaker Julie Dash ("Daughters of
the Dust," "Illusions").
The final panel will feature Professor Richard Dyer of the University
of Warwick and UCLA Professor Valerie Smith, with comment by film
scholar Thomas Cripps ("Making Movies Black"). Together, they
will examine the screen portrayal of African-Americans and issues
of race and sex, as well as how legal and professional mores governing
the entertainment industry come into play. Friday and Saturday,
September 22 and 23.
through Sunday in Scott Hall, Room 123, College Avenue Campus, New
Brunswick; Thursday screenings are in Loree Hall, Room 024, Douglass
College Campus. $5; 732-932-8482; Website:
noir about the omnipotent computer Alpha-60. Created in 1965, it
Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina, Thursday, September 21.
Regis Wargnier’s 1999 epic about political terror, set in Stalin’s
Soviet Union of 1946, Friday to Sunday, September 22 to 24. Eyes
Without A Face, an eerie, 1959 Cocteau-influenced fantasy by
Franju about a surgeon who seeks a new face for his disfigured
Thursday, September 28.
Sillen screen their documentary that focuses on Benjamin, a lead
for a punk-blues band who performs in a blue party dress, Friday,
September 29. Two additional screenings Saturday and Sunday, September
30 and October 1. Screen Tests , Andy Warhol’s classic three-minute
film portraits of the Beautiful People of the mid-1960s, shot at his
Factory, Thursday, October 5.
artist for the winning mural design in its "Princeton — Rich
in Traditions." Princeton’s Starbucks, at 100 Nassau Street, has
space for a permanent, 10 by 20-foot mural. Entries must be received
at the Starbucks Regional office by September 30, and designs will
be judged on originality, taste, and visual appeal. Rules and entry
forms are available at Princeton Starbucks and the Arts Council of
Printmaking 2001 exhibition, on view at the college from January 17
to February 14. Original works of art, created in the past three
in any medium are eligible. The contest will be juried from slides
by Diana Gonzalez Gandolfi, painter, printmaker, and teacher. Deadline
for entries is November 3; two slides may be submitted. Entry fee
is $20 entry fee. For guidelines and entry form, call Judy Masterson
male and female dancers, between the ages of 8 and 12, for
in East Rutherford at the Continental Airlines Arena. Candidates
be fit, have strong technique with funk/hip-hop style, and outstanding
performance skills. They must be available for Sunday afternoon
and performances; there is no financial compensation. Bring a head
shot and resume to the audition, Sunday, September 24, at the Nets
Champion Center, 390 Murray Hill Parkway, East Rutherford. Sign-in
begins at 11 a.m. and auditions at noon. Call Natasha Baron at
all levels who enjoy sight-reading, meets at Lawrence Senior Center,
30 East Darrah Lane, on the first and third Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.
The sessions are informal with no performances scheduled. Robert
Mueller is the organizer, music director, and principal conductor.
Call Mueller at 609-448-2605.
students in its group piano program for beginning piano instruction.
Classes are Wednesdays and Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m., and Saturday
from 10 to 11 a.m. Call 609-921-2900.
Princeton, is raffling a 2001 Boxster with a retail value of $47,000.
Tickets are $100; only 999 will be sold. Proceeds benefit those
to recover from and coping with mental illness. The drawing is
3 at the Hyatt. Call Kathy Applestein at 609-406-0100, ext. 107.
offers photography classes and workshops in fundamentals, aerial
photographic printing, and the pinhole camera. Costs range from $45
to $105, plus materials. Call Sarah Muccifori, 908-725-2110.
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