Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Acting Black Blogathon: Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life


When Wendell first announced that he was doing this blogathon, I immediately thought of Juanita Moore.  There was no hesitation.  It was really the blogathon's title that forced my mind in her direction more that anything else, but I'll get to that in a minute.

First, a brief rundown of the rules:
1a. Create a new post about a great movie performance by a Black actor or actress. Tell us why you love it. Or…
1b. Create a new post about a Black actor or actress. Discuss that person’s body of cinematic work to demonstrate why they’re great.
2. Within your post, link back to this one.
3. Either use one of the snazzy banners I’ve created or one you’ve made on your own. If your make your own just include the pertinent information (my blog title, the name of the blogathon and the dates).
4. Publish your post from February 15 through February 17, 2016 and submit a link to it in one of the three ways listed above.

My very first thought when I read the title of this blogathon was that this performance had to be my choice, and the key reason for that is that the biggest plot point or character arc surrounding Juanita Moore's Annie is that her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, is ashamed of her race and wants to 'act white'.  Annie is, in essence, fighting for her pride as an African American and for her daughter to not only embrace who she is, but be proud of where she came from.

The sad reality is that Annie lives in a world where 'acting black' can make life hard.


Juanita Moore's Oscar nominated performance is one for the ages, a truly inspired and 'complete' portrayal of a woman who has to walk a thin line due to the day and age in which she lives.  She lives with the guilt of a parent who knows that the world is not accepting of their child and will not take her 'as she is', and yet the pain of watching your child turn their back on who they are and where they came from because of the way the world treats her is so convincingly felt within every fiber of Moore's performance.

What I find so fascinating about this portrayal is that it, quite sadly and yet very effectively, highlights the atrocity of racism and prejudice within the way that Annie develops relationships with her own daughter and with the daughter of her 'white' friend, Lora.  Much like the way that Viola Davis was able to portray a beautifully realistic bond with the child she cared for in The Help, Annie's relationship here with Lora's daughter, Susie, is so genuine and natural and honest, because the burden of personal baggage is removed.  She can't have that same relationship with her own daughter because society has placed them at odds.  As Sarah Jane pulls away, ashamed of her mother's skin because it identifies her as different, their relationship is forever scarred and damaged.

They aren't allowed to be comfortable with each other, to be genuine and natural and honest.

Moore plays these moments, both with her own daughter and with the daughter she never had, effortlessly.  She develops such natural rapport with these young women, even in her most uncomfortable of scenes.  She's living this character, and it shows.

Just watch this heartbreaking moment with her daughter:


The way that you can see this woman chronicle her own pain, all the while completely processing her daughter's pain and coming to a realization of what she 'needs' to do here is tremendous.  You can see her subtle shifts in understanding, and when the friend enters, the 'performance' Annie delivers is enough to leave the coldest of hearts truly moved.

But this performance, this character, this moment is so much deeper and more important that you may realize.

Sadly, we still live in a world where 'acting black' can make life hard.

We should be past this.  This movie was made in 1959.  That was 57 years ago.  The pressure that Sarah Jane feels to be something she's not and be ashamed of something she is shouldn't exist anymore, and yet when we have the continued senseless violence and bigotry it is a sad reality of today.  The saddest reality is that, many times, this bigotry and violence is directed at those perceived as 'acting black'.


It disgusts me that, since Trayvon was fatally shot four years ago (almost to the day), I feel like I'm hearing about killings of this nature daily.  Are we trying to create a world where we aren't safe to be who we are, to embrace what makes us who we are?

Mission accomplished.

22 comments:

  1. I've never seen this movie, but I watched that clip and it feels powerful out of context. I'll have to check this out. Great write up!

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  2. Beautiful write-up friend. This was well worth waiting to see on the last day of the Blogathon. So many poignant things written here about both Moore's performance and about how far we haven't come as a society. I already loved this movie, but you've given me an even greater appreciation for it. Great work. Thanks for participating!

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    1. Thanks, Wendell! I'm so happy to have been able to participate. Thank you so much for hosting it.

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  3. Nice look at this deeply felt performance. Juanita Moore really poured herself into it. It's difficult to play someone that saintly without coming across puerile and she manages to avoid that trap by playing her as a just a kindly woman with an infinite ability to withstand the blows that life deals with a cheery disposition until even she can't withstand any more. The statement about Mr. McKenney and the nice crisp $50 bill is such a subtle snapshot of the depth of her goodness, delivered at just the right moment so that it slays an audience already worked up to a fever pitch.

    She makes it clear that she understands Sarah Jane's problem and while she never condones it she struggles to not blame her for feeling the way she does since it is something the society they live in has forced Sarah Jane into if she wants the life she desires.

    That's a good observation about her relationship with Sandra Dee's Susie and how she's able to interact with her at a different level because there's no baggage, better than what Susie can have with her own mother because they have their own complex issues.

    I know you love this film, I remember you picked it for the Mother/Daughter Thursday movie picks. Did you know there is an entire book devoted to it called Born to Be Hurt by Sam Staggs which looks at pretty much every angle of the conception, making and release of the film and the people involved. One of the people the author interviewed in depth was Juanita Moore, as well as Susan Kohner. I loved it!

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    1. Thanks, Joel.

      I've always liked this movie...but never loved it until recently. It's one of those films that has grown and grown in my esteem.

      I'm very intrigued by this book! I'll have to seek it out ASAP!

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  4. I like this remake better than the original 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert with Louise Beavers in the Moore role. It focused more on Colbert's character's potential romance than on the drama between Moore and her daughter. And in the original movie version the daughter's rejection is presented more as wrong because she "should accept her lot in life" or not try to change "the natural order of things" rather than a rejection of her heritage and by doing so, rejecting her mother, too.

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    1. I haven't seen the original, but I've heard many people say that it pales in comparison to what Sirk did with the material (and that they are practically two VERY different movies).

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  5. Beautifully-written piece Andrew! I haven't seen this one but I'm convinced Moore's performance is as moving as you said. I do however concur with what you said about Viola Davis' performance in The Help, that scene made me tear up!

    It saddens me that it seems we haven't really come a long way in terms of racial relations.

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    1. It really is a shame. It's weird, because I think we did come further for a spell...and then it felt like we regressed about 5 years ago and we can't seem to pull ourselves back up out of it.

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  6. Wow! About halfway through this post I realized that I started watching this in high school, and I was loving it, but I had to leave for work never got to see the rest. Somehow, even 30+ years later, I never got back to it *LOL.* I'll look for it this weekend.

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    1. You need to finish this movie, Stephanie! Let me know your thoughts once you get a chance to watch it.

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  7. You wrote a beautiful piece and so eloquently put. I love this film and her performance which most people have forgotten which is a shame. You really did justice here and showed great respect. I can't help but think of Paul Robeson. He was such an excellent actor, writer, singer (1935 Showboat) plus one very intelligent man.

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    1. Thanks so much, Birgit! I really need to see Showboat.

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  8. I didn't read this. But I will. This is my Mom's favorite movie. She tried for years to get me to watch it, and this year, in honor of her March birthday, I've decided to watch this as my March Blind Spot. I'll come back and read this then. I'm really excited to get into Sirk. I've got All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind coming as well.

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    1. As you know already (because I Twitter DM'd you immediately), I can't wait for you to explore Sirk. I also can't wait for you to come back after you watch this movie and let me know what you think of it!

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  9. While I prefer All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, I do like Imitation of Life as Juanita Moore's performance is just incredible. She was the best thing in that film.

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    1. I prefer All That Heaven Allows, for sure, but this one has grown on me quite a bit, thanks in LARGE part to Moore's devastating turn. It just gets better and better with every viewing.

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  10. HOW DARE YOU include that scene in this post! UGH the ugly crying while watching this movie - and that scene is pretty much where it starts. Great writing here, too, and very perceptive about how Moore charts the very different relationships with her daughter and surrogate daughter. This film is so much more complex than your average melodrama, a perfect updating of the original text to the current time period.

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    1. Daniel! This movie is so much better than many would assume, so I'm so glad to see all the supporters for it here! Thanks for the words, buddy.

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  11. Oh, I missed this blogathon. Great write-up, and a lovely performance you chose. Apparently, I didn't nominate her that year. I need to fix that!!

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    1. Um...yes...you must fix that ASAP!

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