Performing Work: Maids, Melodrama, and Imitation of Life as Film Noir
by Gwen Bergner
in Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society
In this article I argue that Douglas Sirk’s maternal melodrama, Imitation of Life (1959), advances an ideology whereby Black women are equated with and consigned to domestic labor. The film features two mother-daughter pairs, one Black and one white. The Black mother, Annie, works as a maid for the white mother. Annie’s light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, passes as white to avoid following her mother’s condition. But Annie’s death at the film’s end seems to bring a contrite Sarah Jane back to her subservient place in the white family. I consider Imitation in relation to nineteenth-century traditions of racial melodrama and current theories of Black materialism to trace how US labor practices worked with discursive systems such as the movies to make the “Black maid” ubiquitous and the modifier unnecessary. Moreover, the structural inequality that relegates Black women to service requires them to act as if they are free agents within a rigged system: that is, to perform an imitation of life. However, the Black characters seize agency from a scopic economy of pleasure founded on Black women’s embodied pain and labor. The emotional power of Annie’s funeral, heightened by Mahalia Jackson’s performance as choir soloist, appropriates melodramatic sentimentality and subverts Sirk’s intended irony to convey Annie’s value on a different scale. Sarah Jane’s protest through passing registers despite her capitulation after Annie’s death because Sirk’s technique for criminalizing her backfires. The film weaves elements of noir, including striptease, into the visual register to construct her as a dangerous femme fatale. But Sarah Jane inverts the narrative’s attempt to strip away her whiteness by making Black servitude the costume, not the essence. Thus, she destabilizes the racial binaries asserted by the tragic mulatta conventions. By theorizing Black agency in scripted performance, revealing Imitation’s hybrid genre of melodrama noir, and reconsidering representations of Black women’s labor, this essay contributes to work in Black materialism and Black feminist performance studies.
Colorblind Melodrama: Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls and the Absorption of Black Feminism
by Allison Rose Reed
Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1975) has become a site of struggle over the reading and redefinition of racism since its original performance and publication in the 1970s. This article situates Tyler Perry’s adaptation of this Black feminist classic within neoliberal multiculturalism’s circuits of value. While Shange’s pairing of two competing registers—the hopelessness of suicide and hopefulness of the rainbow—underlines the text’s complex theorization of collective witnessing, Perry’s For Colored Girls (2010) reduces the rainbow to an empty multicultural symbol. Perry’s controversial cinematic adaptation can be understood as part of the neoliberal incorporation and sanitization of Black feminism. The film’s new narrative arc seemingly offers a righteous critique of the politics of respectability, but does so in order to discipline normatively successful Black women, and overall largely abandons Shange’s vision. Turning up the original’s drama and watering down its social impact, Perry’s Hollywoodization of Shange’s choreopoem capitalizes on the injury, not agency, of Black women, while decontextualizing traumas from the structural conditions that perpetuate them. Moreover, Perry’s rainbow expels queerness from its vision of solidarity and cohesiveness. The film indicates a broader cultural investment in centering diverse bodies while emptying out the Black radical epistemologies such representations make possible. The absorption of Black feminism is enabled by “colorblind melodrama,” or the aesthetics of an official antiracism that offers up narratives of normative exceptionality and spectacularized disposability in order to reaffirm the differential valuation of human life under neoliberal multiculturalism.