Why no remake yet of "Imitation of Life"?

A few months ago I was visiting family and we were playing a game where a person had to pick the “signature” line and the rest of us had to identify the movie it came from

I cried out, “Mama! I’m sorry!”, expecting to stump everyone. But even my father, who hates “chick” movies, knew what I was referencing.

There are actually two versions, but I think most people remember the 1959 film starring Lana Turner. It’s a cult classic, at least. I first watched it when I was visiting a classmate’s house back in the tenth grade. Ever since then, I’ll watch it whenever it’s on TV. But I don’t know if a lot of Dopers even know what I’m talking about.

The 1959 film is definitely campy and embarrassingly outdated. The basic story is realistic enough, but Annie’s devotion to Miss Laura and her overall saintliness aren’t. Sarah Jane as a character isn’t fleshed out either, and she’s the total demon to Annie’s angel. She’s portrayed as the “bad daughter” almost from the get-go. You’re supposed to hate her as much as you’re supposed to love the slavish Annie. Even when she’s apologizing at the end, you’re supposed to roll your eyes at her for being so hateful and ungrateful. As a teenager watching the movie, I allowed myself to be suckered. But now I’m older, I don’t really dig movies that are so (excuse the pun) black and white. The movie didn’t do the “gray” justice, IMHO. I guess I’d like the story to be retold so that there’s more moral ambiguity to chew on.

But it was created back in 1950s Hollywood, when few really saw black people as real people with real lives anyway. Also, the movie had multiple storylines, and there were other characters to share screen time with. Only Laura (played by Lana Turner) really had a decent arc. As to be expected.

I don’t know if the movie should be remade, but I know I would watch it if it was. I can’t think of an actress light enough to play Sarah Jane, though. As crazy as the 1930s version was, at least they took the time to cast a black woman in that role.

I’ve seen the 1959 version a few times-- campy, but compelling to watch at the same time.

I’m not sure it would work as a contemporary movie, though. Sarah Jane could just as easily claim to be white or identify as biracial instead of black. I think you’d have to come up with some very creative twist to make it work today.

Did you mean remake it, and still set it in Jim Crow America?

I could see someone greenlighting a new version; the story’s “know your place and you’ll be rewarded with the respect of those you serve” heart is certainly a congenial message in an era of rapidly-increasing wealth disparity.

But who’s “passing” in the 2010s? We’re beyond Immitation of Life but not yet at Gattica.

I have to disagree that “the basic story is realistic enough.” And I doubt a modern audience would relate to the whole “passing for white” storyline. By the time someone went through the script trying to make it more contemporary, it wouldn’t even resemble the original.

The 1959 version probably wouldn’t even have been made if Turner’s daughter hadn’t killed Johnny Stompanato.

No mainstream movie would be made about “passing for white,” today. However, “passing for something other than a member of the permanent underclass” would work.

We’re almost there, in 2013 (with a permanent underclass). Getting rid of public education will be a big step in that direction! Upcoming immigration status rules–making it official that some are Second Class citizens–is an important component, too.

Still, a bit of a sci-fi cover for what’s being discussed might work best. Permanent-underclass-member-tries-to-rise is a staple of that genre.

So, set the story a couple of decades in the future. Just be sure to highlight the essence: making it clear that members of the permanent underclass who try to rise are bad and wrong. Virtue lies only in knowing your place and accepting it gracefully. The Bad daughter who tries to rise, contrasted with the Good mother who goes on calling the woman she’s worked alongside for years by the honorific “Miss Laura”—a Good mother who dies relatively young because she knows her place far too well to ask for medical treatment…that’s the ticket. That’s what will sell.

Um…you do realize that if you knew that were passing, they wouldn’t be passing, right?

I have cousins who have passed at various times in their lives. So excuse me for not thinking the story couldn’t happen today.

Anyway, by remake I don’t mean “set the move in contemporary times”. It could be set in the 1950s or any other time. Including today. A person being ashamed of where they came from is a timeless theme.

If I met someone trying to “pass” today, I’d just laugh. Nobody I know cares whether a biracial person wants to call themselves black or white or biracial or none of the above. “Passing” only really makes sense if you’re playing by the old one-drop rule.

Now, maybe there are a few places in the US where this would make sense, but not in most of America.

So do you get a “I schooled a white boy today” tchotchke like when you donate blood?

I’m getting the feeling people don’t understand why a person would pass today.

Sure, blackness isn’t the super bad thing it used to be 1950s ago. But guess what? A lot of the people who were alive in the unenlightened 1950s are still alive. There are plenty of bigots and racists walking around, mumbling shit under their breath and doing racist, hateful things. Like tossing Latoya Smith’s resume in the garbage can just because she sounds like she wouldn’t be a good fit with the company.

All it takes is for a weak-minded but ambitious person to hear and see enough racial shit, and suddenly she decides to leave out of conversation that she’s black (or Hispanic or whatever). Then one day the prejudiced boss chooses her for a promotion. Then she meets the man of her dreams, but what do you know? His elderly parents are “old school”, having disowned their daughter for dating a black guy. And noes! She’s pregnant! She has to get married now. Guess who isn’t going to be breaking out the family album anytime soon. Guess who isn’t invited to the wedding. Guess who’s gonna be crying at her mother’s funeral, “I’m sorry!”

Is this a commonplace scenario? No. Which only means it’s like 99% of the stuff that gets played in theaters near you.

To me, to deny that there are people like Sarah Jane still around is to deny that racism is a significant reality. No, it’s not the reality that it was in 1959. But that really wasn’t that long ago.

Yeah. I’ve got a whole bookcase full of them.

In 1959 you were literally breaking the law in many states by “passing” as white. And if caught you stood a good chance of being lynched. I think that’s the difference. Of course racism is alive and well. But the law of the land has been officially color blind for decades.

Every time I watch the news on TV or read the headlines of a news service on the internet, I stumble across a story about a racially-charged incident or crime. And I’m guaranteed to read something racist at the bottom of almost every article I read. The article could be about rainbows and gumdrops, and there will still be something about “niggers stealing all the candy” posted.

Even in the hallowed halls of the Straight Dope message board, we have a few Dopers who are unapologetic about their racist beliefs. Sometimes they’re banned for crossing the line. Sometimes they’re not.

I’m going to be interviewing for another position at work in a couple of days. You know what I always have in the back of my mind when I push myself like this? I wonder if the guy who is interviewing me is a racist internet troll in his spare time. Is he, right after the interview, going to talk to his friends about the chimp who was just in his office? Or is he a nice, decent fellow? I give people the benefit of the doubt, but I sure wish it wasn’t so hard to do sometimes.

Sorry that I can join you in laughing.

It wasn’t like the film was set in Money, Mississippi. Sarah Jane was shaking her ass in New York City of all places. Her fear was losing her job. Not being lynched or being thrown in jail.

The secretary at work once told me a story about a friend of hers who had passed without knowing it. She was hired to work the front desk at a dry cleaners. One day her darker-skinned brother came by asking for her when she wasn’t there. From there on out, she was stationed in the back.

This was the fate that Sarah Jane was trying to avoid. She didn’t want to work in the back. She wanted to be a star (like perhaps Miss Laura was). Framing it in terms of breaking the law and lynching doesn’t really capture the timelessness of the story’s theme, IMHO.

Ok, here’s the pitch: it’s 2013, we set it in Africa. Some of the Black people are trying to preserve their culture, but others see it as a yoke, while yet others see a calculated hustle to better themselves by adapting to the colonizers (while hiding their contempt for them). Plenty of self-hating and recrimination and exploitation as well as honest endeavor. And conkoline! We still get the conkoline.

And here’s the kicker: to make it current, she’s a young Black woman with an round face and almond eyes, passing as Chinese.

But the story’s theme is that Sarah Jane was wrong to try to avoid being the victim of racism. She was wrong to want to call Laura “Laura” instead of “Miss Laura.”

You might sell a story that says “don’t abandon your roots”—you could try to frame it that way. But you cannot sell a story that says “you are wrong to want to call Laura “Laura” instead of “Miss Laura.”” Not to a mainstream audience, anyway. No mainstream audience is going to think that Sarah Jane should call the Lana Turner character “Miss,” or think that Sarah Jane is wrong to try to avoid discrimination.

The only way to get away with that message today is to disguise it thoroughly (as I suggested above with the science fiction idea).

And in the modern-day movie where that happens, Sarah Jane files and anti-discrimination law suit and wins. Or, Sarah Jane gets hired because the employer wants to have some blacks on his payroll, and would rather have someone who looks like Sarah Jane rather than Whoopi Goldberg.

I think you are confusing the idea that, while racism is alive and well today, the idea of “passing” just isn’t a compelling plot line for a movie today. It has lost its sensationalism, and it was the sensationalism that makes movie work in 1959. The idea of young, black woman having a relationship with a white man and pretending to be white was, well, sensational.

I agree that Sarah Jane was made out to be bad just because she wasn’t willing to be subservient like her mother was. But you know what would have been cool? If Sarah Jane hadn’t backed down when Laura scolded her for not being the willing servant at her dinner party. A good remake would have Sarah Jane telling Laura to shove her stupid crudites…because if she was really her mother’s friend, she wouldn’t be treating her as live-in help. Her mother should have been invited to the party, not serving it. And then we’d start to see how twisted Annie and Laura’s relationship is and maybe have some sympathy for Sarah Jane and her lack of “gratitude”.

So I actually think they could leave a lot of that baggage in there, but shine the light so that it’s not so glamorous.

Sort of what they did in District 9.

Right; District 9 was very definitely a disguised depiction of racial segregation and injustice.

A huge chunk of science fiction (whether written or filmed) is allegorical commentary on current events and social trends, of course.