I cried when I prepared for my last class of the semester. Well, not quite cried, maybe—I got choked up. I had some possible reasons. It was late Monday morning and I was teaching a film for the first time in a course I’d only taught once before. Nearly thirty years of teaching and I still feel the electricity (and the stress) of teaching new material. The more complex the text or film, the more apt it is to turn what you thought you knew about it inside out, and offer new vistas of meaning. It is what deep reading in the humanities is all about, but it can wreak havoc on preparing for class.
But that’s not why I cried. The tears came as I hunched over my laptop watching Annie Johnson beg her runaway daughter, Sarah Jane for one last hug. For Sarah Jane it was a final concession before her mother would finally leave her alone to become who she wanted to be. Mom, however, knew that this would indeed be the last hug: she knew she was dying.
I wasn’t the first person to cry over this scene. It comes late in Imitation of Life, a classic melodrama from the 1950s by the director Douglas Sirk, who is known for his extravagant, color-saturated features about the travails of love, desire, guilt, and redemption. I was teaching it in my course on film and media theory to introduce my students to the rewards and challenges of taking seriously melodrama, or weepies as they were known. These films were made to extract tears for entertainment, but in doing so they invited audiences (and students of film) to think about larger social anxieties and the moral dilemmas of everyday life that seem insoluble.
At the center of Imitation lie not one, but two dilemmas that unfold as dramas of motherhood. The headline drama features Lana Turner as Lora Meredith, whose fierce ambition to find success as an actress had led her both to great success, and to neglect her friends and most importantly her daughter. Before her career took off, in an act of kindness she had taken in Annie and Sarah Jane to share a cold water flat. Annie soon installed herself as a domestic force of order, taking over the small household as Lora pursued the lights of Broadway, and later Hollywood. The drama comes from Annie’s being black, while her child resembles her white father. In the scene that made me cry, as a young woman Sarah Jane was running from her mom so she could pass as white.
The film links these stories in remarkably complex and at times painful ways. Exploring them gives students the opportunity to think about how popular media, and film in particular, handles potentially explosive social issues—single motherhood (in the 1950s!), female ambition, and racial inequality—with a blend of sophisticated narrative and awkward (especially to our eyes today) stereotypes.
When I got into class, though, what was on my mind was how it had made me choke up. When I asked the class if anyone else had had the same reaction, a number of students—largely men—admitted to being moved. And that, I realized, was the point of the film, and really of the class. In a course where we read a lot of fascinating, but admittedly dry and often difficult criticism and cultural theory, it was important not to lose track of why we were there: to grapple with the power of culture to enlighten, sure, but as well to move us—move us to tears, to talk, to think, and sometimes to act. Sarah Jane would repent too late of her running from her “mama,” in the end all she could do was throw herself on her mom’s casket—in tears of course. But for those of us who watched, and most importantly, discussed the film, Sarah Jane’s tears, and our tears, would give us something to think about for a long time.