“Pinky” (1949) is a Hollywood film about a light-skinned Black woman who has to make a decision about whether to be Black or White. It stars Jeanne Crain as Pinky, Ethel Waters, and the aging, legendary stage actress Ethel Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s great aunt). It is based on the book “Quality” (1948) by Cid Ricketts Sumner. Elia Kazan directs.
Commercial and critical success: It was 20th Century Fox’s highest grossing film that year. It was named for three Oscars but did not win any.
Hollywood Whitewashing: Both Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne were interested in playing Pinky, but it went to a White woman, Jeanne Crain. Kazan did not think much of Crain’s acting, but that made her good for the part:
“The only good thing about her was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is what ‘passing’ is.”
Censorship: It was banned in Marshall, Texas, in part because it showed a White man kissing a Black woman – even though the actress playing the Black woman was White! A cinema in Marshall played the film anyway. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, with the cinema winning on First Amendment (free speech) grounds.
White racism: Because it was written by White people, I expected the film to play down White racism. Hardly! It showed Whites being nice to Pinky and giving her the benefit of the doubt – until they find out she is Black! Then, suddenly, they change, almost like they have a split personality. There were several scenes like that, with the police, a shopkeeper and some good old boys. Yet when her White boyfriend finds out she is Black – he barely skips a beat! Huh?
Anti-racist messages: The film uses a doctor to argue that racism is not supported by science and a judge to argue that racism makes the US look bad in front of the whole world. It also uses Pinky’s grandmother (Ethel Waters) to counter the stereotype of Blacks as naturally lazy. On the other hand:
Mammy stereotype: Ethel Waters is selflessly devoted to an old White woman (Ethel Barrymore), whose ancestors most likely owned her ancestors. But at least Pinky has the good sense to object to it.
Tragic Mulatto stereotype: Because of when it was written, I expected Pinky to be a Tragic Mulatto, torn between the White and Black worlds and finding happiness in neither. It was a common stereotype used to argue against the mixing of the races (“What about the children?”). Instead Pinky finds that passing for White is no way to live: you need to be proud of who you are, which means proud of being Black and owning it.
Overall: Maybe in a few weeks I will come to my senses and this post will make me cringe, but having just seen it, I loved it (though “Skin” (2008) is still tops for me).
– Abagond, 2017.
- YouTube: Pinky – watch the whole thing
- passing for White
- Hollywood tropes:
- too Black to play Blacks:
- 1949 in 33 pictures