Sichtbarkeit als Aporie – Zum Diskurs über die Haut(farbe) in Douglas Sirkas Imitataion of Life

  • Ursula von Keitz


Ursula von Keitz

Visibility as an Aporia. On the Discourse on Skin (Color) in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life

One of the most important efforts in the development of color film technology was to accurately and realistically reproduce human skin color. In the mid 1930s, it became possible for cinematography to depict the full spectrum of skin colors. From that time on, feature films in the Western culture established a semantic classification of the gendered person which black-and-white films had only been able to display in shades of gray. Fair female skin was closely related to a white middle-class existence and associated with a high moral tone. The darker hue of male skin was associated with vitality (and outdoor activities in general). Women with a darker skin color, in contrast, were often explicitly sexualized and were closely associated with moral transgression. In Sirk’s Imitation of Life, released in 1959, a young light-skinned woman, born to a black mother, struggles for identity in a world of racial discrimination. She passes as “white” (and the film shows us the real difference between her skin colors and that of her mother in many scenes), because whiteness is the only color that can lead to social success. Thus the film reflects on the particular problem of the visible character in a medium of visibility. By constructing herself as white and positing appearance as essence, the light-skinned “black” woman unmasks the social construction of any racial difference.