Here's the thing that they probably don't realize about the remake in comparison to the original: Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane, is a non-black actress who was playing a light-skinned black woman -- just like Jeanne Crain as Pinky and Ava Gardner in Show Boat. For her portrayal, Kohner was an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress. Also nominated in that category was Juanita Moore as her mother. For Sirk's 1959 film, Moore made history as the fourth black actress ever to receive an Oscar nomination.
In the original Imitation of Life, Peola, the light-skinned black woman trying to pass for white, was played by Fredi Washington, herself a light-skinned black woman. The grown Peola is refined, stylish, conflicted and heartbreaking. She's at war with herself and society's racial exclusions. It was a bold, new image of a modern black American woman in a Hollywood film. If today we read that Fredi Washington was the first black actress nominated for the Oscar and Hattie McDaniel was the second, I would not be surprised. Look at the power, complexity, truth and charisma of her performance. It's got a quality that we'd come to associate with white actresses like Barbara Stanwyck.
Read her reviews from top publications in this 1934 trailer for the movie.
Ms. Washington could not move on to other good roles in major Hollywood studio releases the way Susan Kohner did. Why? Because she was a black actress and Hollywood had not embraced racial diversity and equal opportunities then. Black women basically played maids, like Hattie McDaniel did in 1939's Gone With The Wind, the film that made her the first black person nominated for the Oscar and the first to win.
The second black person nominated for an Oscar was Ethel Waters. She was in the Best Supporting Actress category for playing the grandmother in 1949's race drama, Pinky.
In a way, actresses Fredi Washington and Susan Kohner were like Bea and Delilah in the first Imitation of Life. One could move up the Hollywood career ladder. The other could only go so far with restricted freedom. In the story, Bea could not have become wealthy without the cooking skill, the work and even the face of Delilah. But the world outside their Manhattan townhouse will not grant people like Delilah equal rights and privileges.
As for the film's star, Claudette Colbert, 1934 was an excellent movie year for her. She starred in three films that were nominees for Best Picture. Imitation of Life was one.