Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “Imitation Of Life”

Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “Imitation Of Life”

Madame Noire

Veronica Wells, Associate Editor

Everybody knows Imitation of Life. It’s the movie plenty of Black families reference when they speak about the original tearjerkers. When you think about it, it’s amazing that a movie that handled subjects such as race and class in such a real way was released during the beginning of the Civil Rights era. And surprisingly the version most of us know and love, the one with Mahalia Jackson, is a remake of a remake. Check out some of the little known facts behind the making of this classic film…

…Fredi Washington

Fredi Washington was the young actress who played a nineteen-year-old Peola Johnson (Sarah Jane Johnson in the ’59 version.) They approached her to play the older version of Sarah Jane in the 1959 remake but she declined because she didn’t want to only be known as the black actress who was always passing for white.

Washington, whose parents were both biracial, had very fair skin and green eyes but she was adamant about the fact that she identified as black. She told the Chicago Defender,

“You see I’m a mighty proud gal and I can’t for the life of me, find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons, if I do I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens.”

Washington eventually left acting because she was only offered roles where she had to play the tragic mulatto. And while she was fair and maybe appeared White to others, she was not allowed to star alongside White male leads because she was so vocal about her African heritage.

Sarah Jane

Although many African American actresses were tested, eventually, the role of Sarah Jane went to Susan Kohner, who was of Mexican and Czech-Jewish descent…

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