Black people "passing for white" was not a new topic for Hollywood in 1949. It was part of the plot of "Imitation of Life" in 1934, but in that film, an actual black actress, Fredi Washington, played the role of the young woman who "passes" in the white world. In 1949, there were two films dealing with this issue: "Pinky" and "Lost Boundaries," and in both cases, the black person was played by a white actor.
"Pinky" stars Jeanne Crain as Pinky Johnson, a black woman who looks white, so much so that she when she studies nursing in New York, she easily enters the white world and becomes involved with a white doctor who wants to marry her. Needing time to think over her situation, she returns home, which is a shack where her grandmother (Ethel Waters) lives in a black section of their southern town. There she is reminded of the prejudice and cruelty she left. When her grandmother asks her to care for an elderly white woman (Ethel Barrymore), hostility between patient and nurse leads to an uneasy bond.
This is a brilliant film all the way, magnificently directed by Elia Kazan and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, who loved taking on these controversial social issues. The acting is superb: Jeanne Crain gives the best performance of her career as a woman who comes to grips with her true identity. She is so dignified as she walks through the town, soft-spoken yet strong, refusing to come down to the level of those around her. Ethel Barrymore is the elderly terminally ill woman Pinky reluctantly agrees to care for, and she nearly steals the movie with a no-nonsense performance. She's a woman set in her ways and opinions, but she's fair person who can see the human soul. It's probably the best drawn character in the film.
As a teen-aged fan of "Route 66," I can well remember the publicity around the show when Ethel Waters guest-starred. Of course white teens in the '60s had no idea of who she was or the circumstances of her life and career. Yet to this day I can remember her on that show. Forty years later, thankfully, I have an appreciation of her place in history and her work. Waters gives a powerful performance. Her character has accepted her lot in life but sacrifices everything so that her grandchild can have a better one. In her world, white men have the power, and you can clearly see her belief manifested in her courtroom demeanor.
The casting of Jeanne Crain is a sticking point here but not really when looked at in the context of the 1940s. Even with this casting, this is a bold movie, uncompromising in its depiction of white attitudes and racial slurs. It is just a pity that at the time of the filming, Fredi Washington was 45 years old and actually no longer in films. Washington looked so white that she was told by producers that if she would agree to "pass" and play white roles, she could have a career equal to that of Norma Shearer. She refused, and in order to play black women, she had to darken her skin. Lena Horne was deemed not white-looking enough. I suggest that the same is true for the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge. There may have been black actresses who looked white enough to play this role, but would anyone have answered such a casting call? Most importantly, "Pinky" would not have been made without Jeanne Crain, because Zanuck wanted her to do it, and it's a film that deserved making. The other sticking point in the film is Pinky's fiancée, a white doctor. His easy acceptance of her as black - and the fact that she kept it from him - is a weakness in the script. This was done perhaps to highlight that he wanted to her to continue to pass for white, therefore making it clear that Pinky has to the make the decision, but the scenario does not seem believable.
You can predict the ending of "Pinky," and despite complaints that it's a typically neat Hollywood one, I found it immensely satisfying as I found the entire experience of watching this truly classic film, "Pinky."
Pinky, a light skinned black woman, returns to her grandmother's house in the South after graduating from a Northern nursing school. Pinky tells her grandmother that she has been "passing" for white while at school in the North. In addition, Pinky has fallen in love with a young white doctor, Dr. Thomas Adams, who knows nothing about her black heritage. Pinky says that she will return to the North, but Granny Johnson convinces her to stay and treat an ailing white woman, Miss Em. Meanwhile, Dr. Canady, a black physician from another part of the state, visits Pinky and asks her to train some African American students, but she declines. Pinky nurses Miss Em but is resentful because she seems to feel that she is doing the same thing her grandmother did. Pinky and Miss Em slowly develop a mutual respect for one another. Mrs. Em leaves Pinky her property when she dies, but relatives of the deceased woman contest the new will in court. To raise money for the court fees, Pinky washes clothes by hand with her grandmother. The court rules in Pinky's favor and she keeps the land. Tom wants her to resume her life as a white woman and to marry him, but she refuses. Pinky decides to use the house and land for Miss Em's Clinic and Nursery School. —Broncine G. Carter
Uploaded By: FREEMAN
May 20, 2021 at 08:14 AM