Imitation of Life is a revolutionary film with many elements contributing to the theme of conflicts with authority. Although many of the instances in which this conflict is portrayed arise from interactions between mothers and daughters, it is obvious that other factors should be taken into account. One of the major conflicts arises between Sarah Jane’s character (played by Susan Kohner) and the concept of racial status. Upon the audience’s first introduction to Sarah Jane, it is clear that she is a troubled child. At the beach, within the first few minutes, she becomes easily upset and throughout the next few minutes of the film, the reason is made easily apparent. As soon as the children and their mothers arrive at Lora Meredith’s (played by Lana Turner) home, Sarah Jane’s conflict with the authoritative figure of her own racial ambiguity rears its head. When Lora’s daughter, Susie (played by Sandra Dee), offers her new friend a doll as a gift of acceptance and kindness, she is rebuked by Sarah Jane who makes a point of declining the black doll in favor of Susie’s favorite doll with blonde hair and blue eyes. Sarah Jane becomes very upset and throws the doll on the ground in obvious angst. Sarah Jane also is very upset and humiliated when her mother, Annie (played by Juanita Moore), visits her at school to drop off her galoshes because of the snow outside. The subject of race is clearly always at the forefront of Sarah Jane’s mind because she is constantly asking questions pertaining to it, as in the scene during which Annie is telling the two young girls the story of Jesus’ birth at Christmas time. Sarah Jane asks whether Jesus was black or white, to which Lora replies that it does not matter. Despite this response, Lora’s character and Sarah Jane’s character have much more in common than either one seems to realize. Both characters are obsessed with reaching something beyond their grasp currently. Their obsessive longing for what they do not have serves as blinders to what they have already obtained. While Annie is more often than not depicted in a very simple, but always very neat button-down dress, Lora Meredith’s character has many wardrobe changes. Even before her character reaches the level of fame for which she has long yearned for, she has many different outfits, all very flattering and tightly fitting to her form. It is obvious that she is very concerned with her looks and appearances matter very much to her. When the audience sees her in her first meeting with Allen Loomis (played by Robert Alda), Lora lies about her connections, as well as her accommodations- calling home to Annie with a very confusing conversation about cancelling fake plans for cocktails that evening with someone she implies is very important. After Lora reaches the fame and wealth she has long strived for, Annie’s clothes do improve greatly and she is seen wearing pearls, but even over what appears to be an evening dress, she is depicted wearing an apron, which serves as a reminder of her status within the household, as well as within society.
Sarah Jane also uses misrepresentation to her advantage as she is constantly trying to pass herself off as being white, rather than black. She too is very concerned with appearances and puts much more care into her looks and dress than Susie’s character ever does. While Susie is perpetually in clothes that emphasize her youth and oftentimes naivety, Sarah Jane’s clothing choices never make her appear to be like a little girl in any way. Like Lora, Sarah Jane prefers clothing that forms closely to her shape, accentuating her womanly form and casting her in a much more sultry light than Susie’s character ever tries for.
Dialogue and setting play a large role in representing conflict with authority in Imitation of Life. Another form that authority takes in that which is represented by men in the movie. Although the main characters are predominantly female, they come upon many hardships in the medium of masculinity. Firstly, Mr. Loomis stands as an authoritative figure because he has the connections that Lora so desperately desires, but sets the price too high when he intimates that he would expect some sort of sexual commodity from her in return for helping Lora along in her career. He places a mink coat upon her shoulders to tempt her into succumbing to his will, but instead of giving in to the feeling of luxury, Lora seems to feel smothered by the mink coat and the sexual-social dominance that it represents in this instance. Mr. Loomis is not the only man to present an opportunity for conflict with authority. Although he is portrayed as being the “nice guy”, Steve Archer (played by John Gavin), is also an authoritative figure in the movie. One scene in particular represents the conflict arising from this role and it is the scene in which Steve first asks Lora to marry him. The scene takes place in a cramped hallway, which is an obvious and literal interpretation of how trapped Lora feels by his proposal, as well as her own situation. If she accepts the role of housewife to Steve, she will give up her dreams of making it big on Broadway and in film. In the next shot, Lora is liberated from her prospectively mundane future as a housewife when she receives a phone call from Mr. Loomis telling her that she is being offered a small part. As she takes the call, she is able to shake off Steve, who has literally backed her into a corner, and walk into the much more open space of her apartment to discuss the first step towards the future as she wishes it to be. When she returns to Steve and to the narrow space of the hallway, he tells rather than asks her not to go to meet with Mr. Loomis. She shakes off his orders, as well as his grasp on her arm and descends the stairs, down which Steve follows her. He passes her to block her way and further trap her, but in doing so, places her physically above him in the shot and in a metaphorically more powerful position of their argument. She levels with him literally by stepping down to the stair Steve occupies and figuratively by finally exposing the depth of her desire for fame to him. Lora states here that she is going “up and up and up and up and no one is going to pull [her] down”, after which she ironically leaves Steve behind as she descends the stairs. It is the beginning of her descent as a character. The unhappiness during the middle of the film in which Lora has reached the wealth and status she has desired is represented by a bluish tint that colors the majority of this portion of the movie. Many of the outfits, which she and Annie and even Susie wear during this time, are blue as well and they reflect the tragic air that has accompanied their climb to affluence.
Sarah Jane is almost always shown in very vibrant colors such as red and yellow, reflecting her desire to stand out against the background of her racial heritage and be noticed.