Most white people who have ever heard of the term "passing," and know what it means, have probably seen the movie Imitation of Life.
Several years ago, my husband, who's white, watched the 1959 film with me. He was fascinated by the subject matter, and impressed that Imitation of Life had been made back in the 1950s.
I told him that this was the second version, and that the original had been produced in 1934. In that movie, I informed him, a "real black girl" played the part of Peola, the light skinned daughter desperate to pass as white. (In the 1959 movie, the daughter's name is Sarah Jane and she's played by white actress Susan Kohner). If you're not familiar with Imitation of Life, based on the 1933 Fannie Hurst novel of the same name, click here.
The real black girl mentioned above was Fredi Washington, an accomplished African American dramatic actress during the 1920s and '30s. Fair skinned with green eyes, she was often asked to "pass for white" in order to receive better opportunities in films. However, Fredi refused. "I'm honest," she said, "and you don't have to be white to be good." Here's some footage of her as Peola.
She faced discrimination from whites and, because of her appearance, resentment within the black community, which had complex feelings about obvious mixed-race people. Washington expressed her opinions about race and color prejudice, and after retiring from acting in the 1930's, became an activist and journalist.
In 1937, Ms.Washington was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG), which created better professional opportunities for blacks in show business. She also worked as Entertainment Editor of People's Voice, founded in 1942.
Never ashamed of who she was, Fredi Washington was no Peola!
Have you seen either version of Imitation of Life?
Thanks for visiting!
I've only ever seen the 1950's version of Imitation of Life - the one in glorious technicolour!! I never ever ever knew there was an earlier version and I never heard of or knew of this beautiful actress Fredi Washington - until now! Wow!! She has the most sensuous voice - really gorgeous!! Thank you for introducing me to her! She's stunning and what a pioneer!
Thanks for the information! I watched the footage you shared of the movie. My paternal grandfather was half black and half Indian and came south and married my black grandmother. He passed for white on the job but lost it one day when she showed up seething mad! Needless to say, they divorced a short time later. I'm sure this was a common scenario.
We haven't heard of her, so thanks for letting us know about her!
@Old Kitty: I was amazed when I found out that an earlier version existed! It was pretty daring back then to tackle that subject matter on film!
@Charmaine: Hi, Charmaine! Thanks for visiting. You're so right! Passing was a common scenario and I'm sure some divorces resulted because of it. I think I'll do a post just on passing sometime! Very touchy topic.
@Scarlett and James: That photo's pretty steamy;). Hope you enjoyed learning about Fredi!
I hadn't heard of her before. A beautiful woman!
No, but it sounds very interesting. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.
Thank you for this precious article lm always grateful & humbled by the precious achievements made by so many people if wonderful colour fabulous
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