Imitating Life: Women, Race and Film, 1932-2000,
Princeton University, September 22-23, 2000
"Imitation of Life", a surprisingly abiding bit of mid-twentieth century melodrama lends itself unusually well to interdisciplinary dialogue. This story, by the popular writer Fannie Hurst (1885-1968), first appeared in 1932 as a magazine serial. Harper & Bros. released it concurrently as a novel of best-selling proportions. Universal Studios produced two major motion pictures based on the work -- John Stahl's 1934 version and a remake by Douglas Sirk in 1959.
The most enduring aspect of "Imitation of Life" is a racial subplot which explores biracial partnership and friendship, white supremacy, African American complicity in the phenomena of racially enforced subservience,
and "passing." Stahl's 1934 film adaptation represents 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 provided the film industry's first opportunity to enforce its then-new censorship codes regarding the showing of racial mixing on screen.
Hurst's novel and the 1934 film resonated strongly with audiences on both sides of the color line, and aroused months, even years of heated debate among African American intellectuals. The critic Sterling Brown, for example, saw demeaning racial stereotypes in the two main black characters, the plantation mammy and the tragic mulatto. He challenged the film's perpetuation of white supremacy and the color bar. Others chose instead to celebrate the work as a milestone on the road to improved race relations. In private letters to Hurst, her friend, Zora Neale Hurston, twice commented on "the truth of the work." The poet Langston Hughes, "as a Negro," thanked Hurst for her role in bringing "the first serious
treatment of the Negro problem in America" to the screen and later parodied the work for the Harlem Suitcase Theater.
The conference will address and explore many of the above raised questions and issues from an interdisciplinary perspective. While the conference is free and open to the public, space is limited and registration is required.
Registration forms and information may be found on the conference website
at www.princeton.edu/~aasprog/imitatinglife.html. For all other
information or questions contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday 2:00-6:00 Film Screenings, 185 Nassau Street
35mm showing of the two film versions of "Imitation of Life":
the 1934 starring Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington and the 1959 with Lana Turner, Juanita Moore and Susan Kohler.
Friday 7:00-9:00 Keynote Address McCosh 10
Halle Berry, Actress, Producer, Winner of the Golden Globe, the NAACP Image Award and Screen Actors Guild Award for "Dorothy Dandridge."
Saturday 9:00-11:30 Women, Friendship and "Imitation of Life", McCosh 50
Thadious Davis- English Department, Vanderbilt Universit
Cheryl Wall, English Department, Rutgers University
Ann Douglas, English Department, Columbia University
Saturday 1:00-3:30 "Imitation of Life", Our Way, McCosh 50
Julie Dash, Director, "Daughters of the Dust" and "Illusions"
Charles Burnett, Director, "To Sleep With Anger" and "Killer of Sheep"
Donald Bogle, Film Scholar, "Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies & Bucks"
Jill Nelson, Author, Journalist and Professor, City University-New
Saturday 4:00-6:30 "Censorship, Miscegenation and the Production Code",McCosh 50
Richard Dyer, Film Scholar, University of Warick
Valerie Smith, English Department, UCLA
Thomas Cripps, Professor Emeritus, Morgan State University
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