BY CRAIG LITTLE & TRACY LITTLE
“It’s a movie from 1949 about race relations,” isn’t typically a phrase that will generate a lot of excitement. This would be a mistake as Pinky is a hidden gem of its era.
Jeanne Crain stars as the titular Pinky, a woman who is at least 25% African-American but passes for white. (Crain herself had no such ancestry, of course.) The main plot of the movie involves Pinky returning to her childhood home and an illiterate grandmother ‘Dicey,’ played by Ethel Waters. During her time there Pinky acts as a nurse towards Ethel Barrymore’s formidable Miss Em.
It’s the performances of all three women that form the meat of the movie, and this was recognized at the time, as all three were Oscar nominated for this film. (Yes, this means that the 1949 Oscars had more nominees of color in the acting categories than do the 2016 incarnation.)
To my mind the soul of the film is the progression of the relationship between Miss Em and Pinky from pitiless antagonism to something that, while not quite friendship, certainly seems to become mutual respect.
For its period, the picture is surprisingly progressive, with a climactic courtroom scene that plays out like a precursor to To Kill A Mockingbird though without quite the magnetism and directorial quality of the 1962 picture.
Some of the politics of the film’s bygone era are still somewhat relevant today, though the concept of “passing” has broadened considerably from being a purely racial element. The theme of prejudice an injustice in the legal system remains as relevant today as it ever did.
Life also imitated art in that there were legal complications exhibiting the film in the city of Marshall, Texas due to a local censorship board objecting to the content elements of a white man in love with a “Negro” woman. This was before the Supreme Court ruled in 1952 that the First Amendment rights of free speech applied to movies.
We rarely watch actual television, having given up cable in 2008, but we came across this gem of a film after watching a documentary entitled The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross on a New Jersey PBS affiliate. I’d never heard of Pinky and was pleasantly surprised to find such a morally progressive film released in 1949 and, in this writer’s opinion, one that says more than either Imitation of Life film ever did.
Pinky’s grandmother, Dicey, saves up to send her to nursing school. On the train ride up, during a layover from one station to another, she’s mistaken for white. In a moment of panicked opportunity, she doesn’t question it and passes as white, falling in love with a white doctor and keeping the truth of her past a secret.
Coming home (it’s not clear whether she was called home or came home of her own volition), Pinky’s asked to put her nursing skills to use caring for Miss Em, a neighbor woman that she’s resented all her life for a slight that occurred when she was a child. Pinky wrestles between pride and shame of her background, all the while maintaining her professionalism while caring for Miss Em. After Miss Em wills her property to Pinky, she struggles between the life she left behind and her free ticket to white privilege.
The scriptwriting is well done; with metaphors and foreshadowing that say so much in a few words. It’s a strong statement to make in the Jim Crow South and one that needed to be made. It offered a hint of hope in a pre-civil rights era.