Actress Fredericka (Fredi) Washington is best known for her role as Peola in the 1934 version of the film “Imitation Life.” Who can forget the last scene when she cries out for the mother she neglected because their relationship proved who she really was.
Washington played a light-skinned black woman who passes as white to escape the ostracism of being black. With fair skin and hair, and light eyes it could have been an option for Washington to do the same in real life. Hollywood players urged her to pass in order to become as big a star as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawfor. But she refused.
While talented, she was stereotyped as the “tragic mulatto,” and often overlooked because she was too white to be black and too black to be white.
“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire. I am proud of my race. In Imitation of Life (1934), I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt. I was slightly uncomfortable while making the scene where I stood before the mirror asking, “Am I not white?” No person who strives to be the least bit intelligent should allow a thing like color, something for which none of us is responsible, to mar his life or influence his judgment.” –Fredi Washington
Washington had roles opposite Paul Robeson in the Broadway play “Black Boy” and worked with him again in The Emperor Jones (1933). In that film, her skin was darkened so audiences wouldn’t think Robeson was filming love scenes with a white woman.