#9: Imitation of Life (1959)
The opening of Imitation of Life, Douglas Sirk's magisterial swansong, surveys the holidaying masses at Cony Island. They paddle in the sea, walk on the peer, and in this shot, bend around the peninsula, becoming infinite and indistinguishable in the horizon. The hue of skin on display ranges from sandy beige to parasol orange. The camera finds Lora, leaning on a balustrade, shouting for her daughter, Sandra Dee. Flora finds the child with Annie, an African-American woman with a daughter, Sarah Jane, only a few years older. Over the course of the film, these four lives become interwoven in deep and complex ways. Annie becomes Flora's housekeeper, but also her confidant and advocate. Sarah Jane, light-skinned and ashamed of her mother, tries to pass as white. Before we arrive at this complexity, Sirk's opening appears as an arch example of liberal storytelling. It's almost democratic: the camera picked out Lora by chance; her life is illustrative, but so are all the others.
The film becomes a self-indictment, and an indictment of Hollywood. It's about the gaps in the culture, the lives that remain untold. Despite making a progressive film in its representation of black characters, Sirk is aware of his limits. In this light the opening seems a half-ironic nod to the narrow selection of people the movie industry deems worthy of study.
The final scene is a funeral procession. This time the crowds don't extend into the distance, viewed in sunny clarity. Instead we peek through a shop window at the pall bearers and assembled onlookers. Annie had a large, diverse group of friends which Lora never knew about because she 'never asked'. We see this community - from lodges, churches and the neighbourhood - for the first time. It's a pointed ending: an accusation and an admission of complicity.