Critiquing the Plight of the Black Matriarch in Theatre and Film
Langston Hughes spoke of dreams deferred, the pain from unrealized yearnings and forsaken visions that combust within wounded hearts. He pondered the fate of these dreams; do they dry up like raisins in the sun or do they fester like sores that eventually run? Do they stink like rotten meat or crust over like the sugar on syrupy sweets? Perhaps they sag like heavy loads; perhaps they explode (Hughes). Who is to know where these rejected dreams go? Likewise, the deferral of dreams is an underlying theme in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life and the 2016 film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. Both films are interwoven with overt and underlying allusions to how Black femininity, race, and class interact for Black women in 1950s America. Though set in contrasting contexts, one in the urban and newly industrialized Pittsburgh and the other in glamorous Broadway-obsessed New York, Fences and Imitation of Life both utilize the medium of melodrama to depict the struggles of the Black matriarch and directly appeal to Black female spectatorship.
The experiences of Rose - the wife, mother, and only Black female protagonist in Fences - simultaneously parallel and contrast with the plight of Mrs. Johnson, the Black matriarch and only Black-identifying female protagonist in Imitation of Life. Both women sacrifice their dreams of independence and a fulfilled livelihood to cater to the families in their care. Subsequently, viewers witness the demise of their agency and observe the forced employment of strength and resilience made to appear inexplicably tied to their Black womanhood.
One flaw of the Black matriarch, present in the narratives of both women, is a martyrdom inspired by Christian values. These Christian values are often an integral flaw of the matriarch because she, in efforts to emulate the selflessness of Jesus Christ, ultimately martyrs her own happiness and independence for endless compassion, sacrifice, and servitude to her loved ones. The lacking appreciation that she often receives makes these acts of kindness a flaw in most contexts because the love she exudes is unrequited and takes a large toll on her mental and emotional state of being when all is said and done. While Christian ideology does not take up significant space in Imitation of Life’s overarching thematic landscape, it plays a large role in Mrs. Johnson’s life. She is a member of various Black church communities, a fact that goes unnoticed by the people she sacrifices the most for, and she holds on to her pious faith until her last breath. This unwavering faith alludes to a component of the Christian faith: heavenly rewards promised to those who walk a path emulating Jesus’s own life. These promises propel Black matriarchs to continue their walk on earth with the faith that their heavenly Father will reward them when they enter the gates of Heaven. We see this walk of faith as Mrs. Johnson continues to love and forgive her daughter despite her transgressions.
Similarly, but in a more outright fashion, Fences integrates Christian ideology into its thematic makeup. This is done mostly through dreams recounted by Troy, the patriarch, and the imaginings of his mentally disabled brother Gabe. However, Rose displays an unwavering faith and constant walk of compassion and forgiveness. Though viewers only see Rose within the domestic confines of her home for the majority of the film, when we see her elsewhere it is enroute to a church event. One scene in particular shows her praying and being prayed over by female saints dressed in all white. These theological elements contribute to the depiction of Black matriarchs as endless martyrs, pious in nature and endlessly compassionate.
Fences and Imitation of Life both use melodramatic contexts to provide ideological critique centered on the plight of the “strong Black woman”. Mrs. Johnson’s characterization as a strong Black woman aligns closely with the mammy trope as derived from the slave figure trope described in Stuart Hall’s The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media. Like the devoted mammy trope described by Hall, Mrs. Johnson is “dependable [and] loving in a simple [and] childlike way” (Hall 21). Mrs. Johnson’s stagnation comes as a result of her servitude to a white woman and the emotional toll of her daughter’s plight as a tragic mulatress. Mrs. Johnson is painted solely as a nurturer, whose womanhood is defined in opposition to the white woman prototype. Sirk’s portrayal of Mrs. Johnson aims to provide a racial social commentary and attack the “inferential racism” existent in societal norms (Hall 20).
Meanwhile, August Wilson’s depiction of Rose offers the same ideological critique of the strong Black woman trope. he, instead, positions her solely in opposition to toxic Black masculinity and shows how that influences her role as both a mother and a wife in the traditional Black American family. This critique is more subtle, although enhanced by impassioned monologues, and often hides behind a larger critique of Troy and an overarching commentary on the realization of the American dream for Black Americans. Wilson’s commentary differs from Sirk’s pointed critique of race relations and primarily intertwines an assessment of socioeconomic status with that of misogynoir in the traditional Black family. Rose describes Troy’s persona as having been so big that she failed to ask for room for herself. Thus, Rose’s stagnation comes at the hand of her husband Troy, whose domineering masculinity overshadows her needs and wants, while gas-lighting her disapproval of his actions.
Comparable, as well, are both women’s appeals to Black female spectatorship. Mrs. Johnson and Rose respectively appeal to the varying Black female gazes discussed by bell hooks in “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” chapter 7 in her book, Black Looks: Race and Representation. Mrs. Johnson’s mammy-like demeanor inspires an oppositional gaze that disassociates Black female viewers from her servitude to a white woman. Such a trope resurrects a stereotype contested by post-liberation Black American women. Thus, these “black female spectators actively choose not to identify with [Mrs. Johnson] because such identification [is] disenabling” (hooks 122). Imitation of Life engages Black women by enabling them to “critically assess the cinema’s construction of white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze and choose not identify with either the victim or the perpetrator” (hooks 122). Rose engages Black women in a type of masochistic victimization in which “grown black women…identify with her frustrations and her woes” (hooks 120).
Overall, both women appeal to two dominant types of isolation Black women encounter: at the hands of white women in feminine discourse and at the hands of Black men in heterosexual relationships. Mrs. Johnson’s tragic relationship with her white-passing daughter addresses the pain that accompanies Black femininity and sexuality. Her daughter’s rejection of blackness in order to achieve Eurocentric desirability appeals to the isolation Black women face in a generally anti-black society. Rose’s narrative highlights the pain of combined attraction and rejection from Black men. Though Black characters surround Rose, she is the only woman we see in the film and maintains that physical isolation throughout. The other women are only present by way of name. Rose is sexually desired by Troy and does what she needs to do to be a loving and caring wife, but Troy selfishly cheats on Rose and betrays her loyalty. This appeal to Black women’s pain of rejection within their own communities, particularly by Black men in heterosexual relationships, and provides commentary on the complex nature of desirability in Black heterosexual relationships. Through her endurance and continued forgiveness, Rose appeals to the victimization and isolation often felt generationally by Black women who feel an onus to uphold Black family and serve as the pillar of strength despite the abuse they receive from their Black husbands.
What remains painfully true about both films is the manner with which they speak specifically to the realities of Black women only. Only Black women carry this particular burden of resilience and strength that has trailed their steps in the wake of colonization and slavery. Black women are made to feel that they owe it to Black men and their families to endure pain and embarrassment, just as they have seen their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers do. Imitation of Life speaks to the aspirational white femininity that many young Black girls, light and dark alike, secretly and overtly combat. The approximation of desirability and success to whiteness inspires consistent pain and public exclusion for Black women in particular. Both Fences and Imitation of Life depart from the widely accepted, but isolated, view of white men as the primary assailant and move to see victimization of Black women at the hands of white women and Black men. The commentary provided by Sirk and Wilson follow a tradition of defining Black womanhood by way of suffering and pain. Black women are arguably the most affected by both films because they leave the theater having received a portrait of themselves, a portrait that masks their cyclical oppression as an unstoppable resilience. Thus, in films like these, Black women are represented but their complexity erased.
Fences. Dir. Denzel Washington. Screenplay by August Wilson. Perf. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. 2016. Film.
Hall, Stuart. "The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media." Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean McMahon Humez. N.p.: Sage, 1994. 18-22. Print.
Hooks, Bell. "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators." Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992. 115-31. Print.
Hughes, Langston. "Harlem." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 1994. Web.
Imitation of Life. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Screenplay by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott. 1959. Film.