13th 08 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Imitation of Life (1934/1959)

Directors: John M. Stahl/Douglas Sirk

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among master directors of women’s films are two men whose careers are intertwined. John Stahl, whose heyday occurred during the 1930s, and Douglas Sirk, the 1950s king of technicolor melodrama, each made versions of the same three novels: Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, Lloyd C. Douglas’ Magnificent Obsession, and James M. Cain’s Serenade (Stahl’s film was called When Tomorrow Comes, and Sirk’s film was titled Interlude). It is hard to say what attracted Stahl and Sirk to genre films often disparagingly described as “weepies” and “soapers,” but it is fair to say that these two men wanted more from these stories than to give women a vicarious romance and a good cry. Neither Imitation of Life is a run-of-the-mill women’s film in any case. While its main story involves the fortunes and loves of a central female character, this story intersects with the racially charged travails of an African-American woman and her light-skinned daughter. Both films offer the view that a white woman can improve her circumstances with enough guts, ingenuity, and physical attractiveness, but that African Americans, even those light enough to pass for white, are inherently unable to realize the Horatio Alger dream of the self-made person that infects Americans to this very day.

Stahl’s film, a faithful adaptation of the Hurst novel, centers on Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a widow barely supporting herself and her three-year-old daughter Jessie (Baby Jane) by running her late husband’s maple syrup business. On a very busy morning, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her four-year-old daughter Peola (Sebie Hendricks) fetch up at Bea’s door answering an ad for a live-in maid. They have come to the wrong address, and Bea offers her regrets. Just then, Bea runs upstairs to rescue a crying, fully clothed Jessie from the bathtub she slipped into to retrieve her rubber ducky. When Bea comes back downstairs, she sees that Delilah has been fixing her breakfast. Delilah basically volunteers to be Bea’s servant in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter, who has been a handicap to Delilah’s job search. Thus begins a relationship that will see an uncomplaining Delilah give up her secret pancake recipe, come along with Bea as she sets up a pancake house, and become the face of Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour and a household fixture as Bea’s success affords her a luxurious lifestyle and the attentions of ichthyologist Stephen Archer (Warren William).

Sirk’s film maintains the basic outline of the novel, but provides all but the Stephen Archer character with new names, and makes Bea, called Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) here, an aspiring actress. Lora and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) meet at Coney Island beach while Lora is looking for her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). Lora brings Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) home because they are homeless. Lora also meets Steve Archer (John Gavin), an aspiring fine-art photographer, on the beach. Lora finds the same success as Bea, and like Delilah, Annie comes along for the ride.

Both of these films remark on race and gender relations, as well as the times in which they were made. Stahl’s film reflects the social consciousness of Depression-era America, saving its sympathy for the economic precariousness of women without men. Although the story makes both Bea and Delilah widows, many women lost men to the road as they looked for work and to despair through the bottle and abandonment. Bea must finagle her store using hard bargaining, charm, and a generous amount of bull. Delilah’s character is just as desperate to hold her family together, but Stahl plants her character firmly in a caricature of the jolly mammy.

Stahl’s treatment of Bea’s story is standard Hollywood glamour. Bea wears one luscious gown after another in the success part of the story, falls into a very quick and intense romance with Archer, who despite his seemingly ordinary career as a marine biologist, seems to be independently wealthy. The pair steals kisses, Colbert’s head tilted so far back I thought it would break off (couldn’t they have provided her with a step stool?). Finally, Bea and Stephen deal with the complication of a college-aged Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falling for Archer by delaying their marriage with tortured longing until Jessie has gotten over him.

Delilah and Peola’s story is treated in both a demeaning and paradoxically realistic way. Louise Beavers’ Delilah is simple-minded, ignorant, emotional, and religious. There are ways to ask for room and board in lieu of payment that aren’t so butt-insulting as the way Stahl directed Beavers, making it sound like Delilah’s main delight in life is serving white folks. A close-up of Beavers posing for the image Bea wants on her restaurant sign is a caricature of the Aunt Jemima caricature; I can just hear audiences of the time busting a gut at her lengthy, demeaning mugging. During Delilah’s death scene, we get a full chorus of the black servants in Bea’s employ singing a field hand lament from behind closed doors, and Beavers is never accorded the dignity of a close-up. We really never see her full face in a scene normally so important that Alla Nazimova rewrote the story of her Camille (1921) so that she could die without Rudolph Valentino’s character in attendance to pull focus from her.

The paradoxically realistic parts, however, are Delilah’s religious faith and Peola’s perception of how different her life would be if she hadn’t been born black. Peola persistently tries to pass for white throughout the film. Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African American, plays Peola as a young woman who hates the restrictions on her, yet Fredi, with those same restrictions, never denied her race; indeed, she refused to pass for white when the studio bosses wanted to build her up, and went on to form the Negro Actors Guild to expand opportunities for African-American actors and fight discrimination. Although her character disowns her mother and comes to regret it in two emotionally wrenching scenes, Peola’s feeling of being white, which I read to mean she knows she’s as good as everyone else, announces her as a member of a new generation, one that would eventually go on to fight and win the battle for civil rights.

Delilah’s attempts to get Peola to accept who she is arise from her deep faith. She believes God made folks black and white for a reason and that it is nobody’s place to question that decision. Beavers makes Delilah’s professions of faith so effortlessly sincere and idealistic that she manages to flesh out her character and provide some believable motivation for her acceptance of a second-class role in Bea’s household and business. When, in the end, she is given the grandest funeral New York has ever seen, the film brings into focus the success of Delilah’s lifelong goal—her glorious assumption to heaven. That Bea honors her wish to keep house and accedes to her decisions about her daughter, for example, suggesting Delilah send Peola to an all-black university in the South, may seem as though she is reinforcing the limitations on the black community. Yet I felt more camaraderie between her and Delilah, a shared fate as widows and mothers, than would be evident in the 1959 version. Perhaps the most famous moment of this inventively shot film, one in which both women go off to bed, Bea climbing the stairs of her mansion and Delilah descending into the below-stairs quarters, may be Stahl’s one statement about the inequality that all the characters but Peola accept as the natural order of things.

Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is a different animal altogether. With a script much more layered and explicit with regard to the evils of the world, it poses a greater indictment of the relationship between Lora and Annie. At the same time, it indulges in its own stereotyping, offering either objectification or infantilization of the women in the film.

Right off the bat, Steve, a photographer, snaps Lora’s picture as she searches frantically for her missing daughter. He insinuates himself into her search, wheedles an “invitation” to her home by offering to hand-deliver a photo of Susie and Sarah Jane, and then assumes prerogatives over Lora that seek to control how she pursues her acting career—a far cry from the genteel Warren William who is willing to do anything Bea says. While Lora puts him in his place, as well as talent agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), who agrees to get her work in exchange for her “escort” services, the choice to make Lora an aspiring actress puts her squarely in the ’50s mold of objectifying women; while post-success Bea was certainly a glamorous figure, she herself was not characterized as an object. Using her intelligence as well as her feminine wiles to get started in business was made to seem admirable, whereas Lora’s outright lying about being a film star to get in to see Loomis seems tawdry.

Lora and Annie are nowhere near equal footing. Annie exchanges domestic duties for a place to live. She offers no secret recipe or services that could help Lora advance her career aside from answering the phone “Mrs. Meredith’s residence.” Although Lora only rents the apartment in which all of them live, it is clearly her home, not Annie’s. There doesn’t seem to be any real camaraderie between Annie and Lora—the bonding that developed when Delilah rubbed Bea’s tired feet has no real match in this film. There is one foot-rubbing scene between Lora and Annie late in the film that is fleeting and rather perfunctory, and the film takes pains to show that Lora barely knows anything about Annie. When Annie describes who she’d like to have come to her funeral, Lora says she had no idea Annie knew so many people; Annie’s reply is the gentle rebuke, “You never asked.” Therefore, while Annie has a much richer on-camera (or, at least, scripted) life in Sirk’s version, the “all in this together” ethos of Stahl’s Depression-era film is largely lost.

Sarah Jane’s character, beautifully played as a young woman by Susan Kohner, is much more blatant in her contempt for the place of African Americans in her world. When Lora finds out Sarah Jane has a boyfriend, she asks if he is “the Hawkins boy”—the black son of the chauffeur in a neighboring household. Sarah Jane is deeply offended, and later puts on a shuck-and-jive show when her mother asks her to bring a meal tray into Lora and her guests. Sirk expressly ensures that we understand why Sarah Jane wants to pass. When her white boyfriend finds out she is actually black, he asks her if it’s true that she’s a nigger, slaps her silly, and leaves her laying in a puddle in a dark alley. This scene is brutal, but tracks with the ambivalence shown by the white lover in Cassavetes’ Shadows, which also premiered in 1959, and the general unease of the white community toward the burgeoning civil rights movement. On a less generous note, Sarah Jane leaves home to find herself as a scantily clad showgirl, not the respectable store clerk Peola tries to be before Delilah and Bea track her down. The ’50s didn’t leave women who wanted to make their own way in the world many options, and call girls and actresses abound in films of this time.

Among the supporting characters in each film, I found the contrast between Rochelle Hudson and Sandra Dee, who plays the college-aged Susie, to be almost freakish. Hudson’s Jessie is young, but not unintelligent or lacking in social graces. She and Stephen keep company together while Bea is tied up with work or helping Delilah find Peola; despite their age difference, Jessie manages to be decent company for Stephen and seems justified in thinking she could be a good wife for him. Sandra Dee’s Susie is a blithering idiot who seems hopped up on amphetamines. It’s hard to believe Sirk couldn’t rein her super-fueled perkiness in, so I smell a bit of studio interference on this one to keep the controversial aspects of the story from infecting their virginal starlet.

Ned Sparks is a wonderfully comic presence as the general manager of Bea’s company who begged for some free pancakes at her restaurant and gave her the million-dollar idea to box the flour and sell it. By contrast, Robert Alda’s presence in Lora’s life is an insult. He practically rapes her, and yet later, she’s happy to have him represent her and get his 10 percent cut. Maybe this is a comeuppance for Lora, whose crime of neglecting Susie and Steve is pure ’50s sexism.

Finally, ’50s notions of where a woman’s place should be, as well as the era’s blatant racism get the final word. Annie’s funeral offers a thrilling performance by Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World,” but truncates Sarah Jane’s moment with her mother’s casket. In the end, Lora shepherds Sarah Jane into the mourners’ limo, as the camera lingers lovingly on Lana Turner throwing a meaningful look at Steve and Susie that signals family life has finally won out over self-actualization.

16th 04 - 2010 | 13 comments »

Watermelon Man (1970)

Director: Melvin Van Peebles

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“This ain’t America, is it?”

The 1970s, the decade in which the American independent film movement and the careers of many of today’s iconic filmmakers had their starts, got a rip-roaring launch when the great Melvin Van Peebles made his only studio feature, Watermelon Man. The union of Columbia Pictures and Van Peebles is, in many ways, a classic tale of the African-American experience. Van Peebles couldn’t get arrested as a director in Hollywood, so he followed the example of Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and numerous others and went East—all the way to France. He got his director’s card by learning to write in French so that he could write a book and adapt it for the cinema—a typical example of Van Peebles’ ability to work an exclusionary system, in this case, one set up to promote French culture, to his advantage. When his French feature, Le permission (The Story of a Three-Day Pass, 1968) was a selected for a film festival in San Francisco, Van Peebles got his “visa” to Hollywood. He was teamed with writer Herman Raucher (who rather incongruously would go on to write the nostalgic coming-of-age drama The Summer of ’42 and other family dramas) and instructed to shoot Watermelon Man as a comedy in which a bigoted white man turns black overnight and, in the end, wakes up from this “nightmare” a more tolerant man.

It’s hard to know what kind of delusions—or drugs—were influencing Columbia’s greenlighters when they conceived this idea, but these were radical-chic times. Obviously, the civil rights movement and desegregation were putting blacks and whites into closer, more volatile contact. But Watermelon Man wasn’t a thoughtful film in the Black Like Me mold. The racism is so blatantly a caricature that a white pseudo-liberal audience would be able to say “that’s them, not me” with relative ease. And the ending the studio wanted would have soothed their anxieties, showing them how terrible (“wink wink”) bigotry is and then letting them return to their comfortably segregated homes none the worse for wear. Van Peebles would have none of it. Not willing to promote the idea that being black is a nightmare, he convinced the studios to let him hire Godfrey Cambridge instead of Jack Lemmon in the lead and put him in white face for the beginning sequences, agreed to include the dream ending, and then “forgot” to actually shoot it. The result is a film that keel-hauls white America in a way that is classic Melvin Van Peebles.

Casually bigoted insurance salesman Jeff Gerber (Cambridge) lives in a nice, restricted suburb with his wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) and two children (Erin Moran and Scott Garrett). He considers himself a fit and healthy specimen of white manhood and conducts a foot race each working day with the bus that carries his neighbors into town. Because the bus must stop to take on and drop off passengers, Jeff always wins. He blusters past his resentful colleagues and sexually harasses Erica (Kay Kimberley), the German blonde who works in his office and is disgusted by him. After a successful and productive day, he returns home, eats dinner, rejects his sex-starved wife, and tucks himself into bed for a self-satisfied night’s sleep. The standard movie device for signaling a dream—pulsing, circular colors—envelopes the screen. Jeff wakes up to use the toilet, only to find that his skin has turned very black. After initially blaming his color on a defective sun lamp and trying unsuccessfully to lighten it with a bleaching mold and a milk bath, he finally has to return to work and a world that sees him in a whole new way.

The running sequence at the start of the movie seems rather daft and beside the point: it is, it seems to me, a device to show how differently a running white man and a running black man are seen. Whereas white Jeff moves through his neighborhood and takes shortcuts with ease, black Jeff, traversing the same route, is harassed and stopped by a mob who accuse him of stealing something. Nobody knows what he stole and nobody saw him steal anything. But he must have done something; why else would he be running.

The film also takes off on the supposed potency of the black male. When Althea desires a peek at her husband’s penis, he says “that’s an old wives’ tale,” which is a rather sly way Van Peebles takes a slam at white manhood. Erica, also turned on by the idea of having sex with a black man, slips Jeff her phone number. They hook up, and after sex, Erica riffs in a verbal ecstasy on the virtues of the black body, leaving Jeff uncomfortable with his same white body disguised only by color. He calls her a bigot and leaves as she yells “nigger” in anger. It seems that Van Peebles went out of his way to choose a white woman with a rather grotesque body—her 1970-vintage, rigid breast implants look like bologna sausages fastened with cement—and making her German indulges in a stereotype as well.

Van Peebles also takes on the medical community, to better effect. Jeff’s doctor (Kay E. Kuter) gives him a complete physical, phoning in test results every few minutes to let him know he doesn’t have hay fever or food allergies, a dead-on satire of the rule-out-everything approach to medical practice that substitutes expensive thoroughness for intelligence. When the inevitable failure to diagnose results, the doctor tries to uncover a genetic basis for Jeff’s condition, pointing to his full name of Jefferson and his wife’s name, Althea, as evidence that Jeff always had black tendencies that were bound to erupt.

The moments between Jeff and his boss, Mr. Townsend (Howard Caine) are perfection. Townsend doesn’t care that Jeff is now black—he looks at it as a golden opportunity to put a salesman in the black community, something his company has never had. His business-is-business approach pretty much sums up the color-blindness of greed, particularly when Jeff refuses to sell insurance policies to black families who can’t afford it and Townsend hits the roof. This, at once, shows the more dire economic straits of the African-American community and the perhaps needless insurance purchases of better-off white families. While scenes of Jeff visiting black homes to sell policies show his potential customers to be substantial citizens, it’s a shame that even in a Melvin Van Peebles film, Mantan Moreland, who plays a waiter in a diner, is not allowed to transcend his darkie stereotype.

Althea and Jeff are similar to Archie and Edith Bunker of television’s ground-breaking sitcom “All in the Family” (1971). The main difference is that Althea and Jeff are better off and higher on the social ladder than the Bunkers, and therefore, Althea is a more vocal liberal than Edith would ever be, railing against Jeff’s racism at the start of the film. She starts singing a different tune, however, when she finds she has to actually live her “principles” if she wants to stay married to the father of her children. Instead, she ships the kids to her sister in Indianapolis and follows soon after. She even seems to imply that Jeff tricked her in some way, an interesting take on passive liberalism whose cover is blown in the face of direct confrontation. She has a nice mosquito-y way of buzzing around Jeff trying to scrape, rub, and spit-wash his skin tone away that’s fun to watch, but her sitcom lines, for example, “I could get you some graham crackers or some Bosco,” when Jeff is soaking in his milk bath, are more stupid than funny.

Godfrey Cambridge provides a flawed, but still impressive backbone to this film. His hysteria after his color change is mordant, but mainly the stuff of sitcoms. He wisecracks about his situation, moving to the back of the bus he no longer runs to outpace, yelling at Althea when she unconsciously serves him watermelon and fried chicken for dinner, telling a cabbie who takes him to the “colored side of town” to get some skin bleachers that he doesn’t mow lawns in the white neighborhood, but rather gets to sleep with the lady of the house. Once he settles into a more African-American identity, however, Cambridge brings more nuance and depth to his role. He understands the way things are and even seems to make Van Peebles’ awkwardly symbolic framing of Jeff behind burglar bars in his new apartment seem more matter-of-factly part of the black experience than that of a white man trapped in a black body.

Van Peebles offers many of his signature flourishes, including sex in the form of a black go-go dancer in pasties and incidental music with occasional lyrics that emphasize the black dilemma in America. “This ain’t America, is it?” is more than Jeff’s bewilderment at his loss of entitlements; it is a populist cry from America’s disenfranchised. The improvisational style of this music hints at the improvisational film style Van Peebles only occasionally gets to bust into on this film. It also seems fairly obvious that Spike Lee was greatly influenced by Van Peebles.

Despite its obviousness, the script for Watermelon Man was well paced and witty enough for Van Peebles to sink his teeth into. He may have been paired with this movie simply because it had a black subject and he was a black director, but Van Peebles used the opportunity to its utmost. Watermelon Man is much better than it should have been and formed a valuable proving ground for our most important African-American filmmaker.

8th 04 - 2010 | 8 comments »

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Steve James

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As a person who lived through the melee of the 1994 O. J. Simpson murder trial, I knew I had never seen anything like it—particularly the way blacks and whites lined up on either side of the guilty/not guilty divide—and thought that certainly there never was or would be a trial like it again.

I was wrong.

Just a year before this trial of the century, a less sensational, but no less divisive trial took place in the historic community of Hampton, Virginia. The phenomenally gifted star of the Bethel High School basketball team and future NBA great Allen Iverson and three other boys (Michael Simmons, Samuel Wynn, and Melvin Stephens) were arrested for throwing punches and chairs in a Hampton bowling alley that injured three whites, including a pregnant woman. Stephens severed his trial from the other three defendants and ended up walking with a misdemeanor conviction. Simmons, Wynn, and Iverson took a bench trial presided over by a “hanging” judge and were convicted of three counts of “maiming by mob”—a felony crime put in place to allow lynch mobs to be prosecuted—and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The town of Hampton was instantly split in two. A concerted effort by a citizens group called S.W.I.S. (the initials of the four defendants) and the fortuitous ability of Virginia’s first black governor to grant clemency because he was retiring and unconcerned about facing voters the next year enabled the three boys to win their freedom after serving about four months.

Steve James, one of the world’s most gifted documentarians, hails from Hampton, and like everyone else on “The Peninsula” on which Hampton rests, was well aware of Allen Iverson. James’ father Bill, though an alumnus of Hampton High, was a huge fan of Iverson’s. After James moved to Chicago, his father used to send him clippings from the local papers about Iverson’s accomplishments on the gridiron and the basketball court—and of course, stories about the trial. When ESPN approached James to take part in its “30 for 30” documentary series, he chose to return to Hampton to try to make sense out of what happened there in 1993.

As a Hampton insider and a natural storyteller with complete command of the cinematic form, James gives viewers the lay of the land quickly and indelibly. We feast on footage of Iverson, just barely brushing past 6 feet tall, running like liquid mercury down the football field and hanging off hoop rims after authoritative slam dunk after slam dunk. We see him sink 30-foot jump shots and celebrate his touchdowns with fancy endzone moves. We also hear about his temper, his cockiness, his fatherless home, his drug-addicted mother, the neighborhood black men who stepped in to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. And we see a narrow footpath to the shore of Chesapeake Bay as James reminds us that Hampton, the oldest, continuous, English-speaking settlement in North America, also was one of the earliest centers for the slave trade. Thus, tidily, we are prepared for a discussion of race.

And, indeed, race may have caused the brawl at the bowling alley. Most of the witnesses and the defendants contend that some white bowlers had bandied about the “n” word to incite a fight. A fragment of video footage of the brawl was taken, and the chairs flying from black hands onto white bodies looks pretty savage. Iverson supposedly had been led out of the bowling alley, away from the fight, to protect his future as a top recruit for elite college athletic programs.

Jim Spencer, a Hampton Daily Press columnist and reporter in 1993, did not think Iverson was the kind of person to walk out on a fight. He ran a blunt opinion piece at the time that said Iverson and the others needed to be accountable for their actions, denying race had anything to do with the arrests. Nonetheless, no whites were arrested and considerations about the possible verbal incitements dismissed as a “sticks and stones” situation.

James had trouble getting people—including his own mother—to agree to be interviewed for the film. Iverson did not cooperate, but James skillfully blends interviews of him while he was in a minimum-security farm-prison and other archival footage, for example, holding one of his Crossover camps in Hampton (following criticism that he had avoided coming there), talking about his devoted white tutor who used to cry when he would show up at her home late for a lesson, and graduating from high school months after his classmates had already matriculated. It is through all his triumphs and trials that we get the complicated picture that is Allen Iverson.

James also talks to some of the S.W.I.S. members, who called the incident the most blatant example of racism they had ever seen in the Virginia judicial system. There is some intimation that prosecutor Colleen Killilea had political aspirations, and indeed, she is now a judge who refused to be interviewed. Regardless of whether one feels the boys deserved some kind of punishment for their part in the brawl, one has to conclude that 15-year sentences for first-time offenders who were not unequivocally tied to the crime (Killilea told Sports Illustrated at the time, “While we couldn’t link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred,” which put the maiming by mob charge into play) was a miscarriage of justice. James says that Iverson’s fame undoubtedly worked against him at trial, but for him in winning release. Amusingly, right after James shows a scene of jubilation about Iverson’s release, he cuts to Michael Simmons remembering his reaction with a laugh: “What about me?”

James’ skilled editing provides many such laughs and evenhandedly juxtaposes the outrage of black Peninsula residents with the law-and-order uprightness of its white population. He also makes it clear that black residents who had moved on up in the world were also against Iverson and his codefendents. James shoots scenes of the well-to-do blacks watering their lawns in fashionable neighborhoods, though the suggestion of one interviewee that they simply didn’t want to lose ground in the racial divide seems a little too simple. It was, as another interviewee put it, an issue of class more than race.

James went in search of his roots in such a way as to find out more about a community he only half knew. When asked about race relations today, one of the S.W.I.S. members said it’s a tiny bit better. A middle-aged black man says it’s like watching a duck. You see the duck glide smoothly on top of the water, but you never see its legs paddling furiously underneath. James ends this superb film with a group of geese moving across a pond in Hampton.

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