At first glance, it seems like a good idea: female protagonist, female independence, an opportunity for education, a fair court trial and above all raising awareness of racism and prejudice.
But what is Pinky really about and what does it show us?
Let’s wrap up the plot: produced and released by 20th century Fox in 1949, Pinky is a charming black and white Hollywood film about the protagonist “Pinky“, a coloured girl passing herself off as white in north-eastern USA.
When she returns to her childhood home in the South (this is also how the film starts) we are introduced to the key conflict: Pinky’s black grandmother knows that her granddaughter pretended to be white and insists that Pinky – who called herself Patricia in the North where she trained to be a nurse – should ask the Lord for forgiveness.
During Pinky’s stay in the South, she is persuaded by her grandmother to care for an old white Lady, Miss Em, who harassed Pinky when she was a child. The protagonist nurses Miss Em, not without holding a grudge against her, until she gets to know her better.
When Miss Em dies, it is revealed that she included Pinky in her will, leaving Pinky her house and her land, but Miss Em’s cousin Mrs. Wooley wants the property for herself.
Pinky fights for her right in court, with her almost-fiancé watching.
This almost-fiancé – a doctor from the North, Mr. Thomas Adams – surprised Pinky by travelling south after her and confronting her about her black identity (which he knew nothing about). There is a moment of tension when it is not clear if Mr. Adams will stay with Pinky after she tells him about her heritage, but this is quickly resolved by a meaningful sentence: Mr. Adams says that as a doctor, he cannot believe in the theory of inferior and superior races.
And this is where I want to start. When I first watched the film, I was pleasantly surprised at the ending and the way it was handled, also by the way of coloured people are portrayed and how the protagonist goes back to her roots.
But as I already mentioned, Pinky only seems like a good idea at first glance.
Let’s have a closer look.
The stories surrounding the casting and production of the movie are enough by themselves to make one think.
At first the producer (Darryl F. Zanuck) and the director (Elia Kazan) wanted a coloured actress for the lead, which would have made the whole project that bit more realistic, and they had two possible candidates before settling on the white actress Jeanne Crain for the role of Pinky. The reason behind this change was that in some US-states, predominantly the South, there have been outrages at the mere idea of having a white man kissing a black woman on screen, and some people thought it so bad that the film was banned in Texas.
Another fact that startled me and actually got me out of believing that this movie was all goody-goody was the way some of the coloured characters where displayed – namely Aunt Dicey (Pinky’s grandmother), Jake (a man from the village with the reputation that he could get you anything if you pay well enough), and Rozelia (a woman from the village with a romantic attachment to Jake).
Dicey Johnson, just called Aunt Dicey by everyone, is a washer woman in the village who is not paid in cash for her services. What is clear from the start with this character is that she is the stereotypical “Mommy” black woman, a bit round, motherly, caring, sweet. Even though she has the ability to speak her mind, which she does when reprimanding Pinky for denying her identity, it feels more like Aunt Dicey also embodies the image of the “Mad Black Woman” rather than a worrying and disappointed relative.
Jake and Rozelia appear in one key scene together, with Rozelia falsely accusing Pinky of stealing money from Jake. Both women get physical in the misunderstanding, but Jake holds Rozelia back when two policemen arrive.
One of them tells Rozelia to lift her dress, which reveals a knife that she carried in her stockings.
Apart from the obvious humiliation and disrespect of the policemen’s behaviour, the message is clear: Rozelia fulfils the cliché of the dangerous, always-ready-to-fight black woman. Without even asking why she is carrying a knife (which looks more like a kitchen utensil than anything else), the police arrest both Rozelia and Jake, and then also Pinky.
From here on, Jake’s conduct solely serves to confirm the stereotypes which have already been present throughout the film. In a conversation with Aunt Dicey, he takes a letter from her and blackmails her with the contents. Even though this scene does not bring about ugly consequences, you get the hint – Jake is a thief and a liar, all because he is coloured.
So far we have looked at two peculiarities – a white actress for a bi-racial protagonist, stereotyping the black characters so that the people watching the movie will feel like they know the people portrayed on screen. Does this mean that the film that was supposedly about calling out racism is inherently racist? No, of course, that never could have happened in old-glamour Hollywood.
But wait, there’s more: the illusion of female emancipation.
Yes, I know what you are thinking: “It was released in 1949, it’s only natural you can’t compare it to modern films!”
I know I can’t, but that’s not the point. In my opinion, for a movie that was produced in the post-war period, it is good. Apart from the controversial casting choices and prejudiced depictions of black people, Pinky has its positive sides.
The first is the fact that we have a female protagonist – woah – with more feelings than just “happy rainbow sunshine smile” and that other women contribute to the storyline and are not mere “fillers” or decorations next to an important male character.
Yes, the women are still expected to fit into their role of femininity, but at least the main character is not focused on finding a loving husband and starting a family. Pinky stands up for her rights, makes her own decisions, and defies traditional gender expectations when Tom tells her: “There’ll be no Pinky Johnson after we’re married. You’ll be Mrs. Thomas Adams for the rest of your life.” (Pinky, 1:19:59).
This is, in my eyes, a positive beginning. Without wanting to give away the ending, it is clear throughout the movie that Pinky does not conform to traditional gender roles – she comes back to the South, and after a couple of struggles with her new environment (the prejudiced policemen, caring for Miss Em), she accepts her position and defends her right to own the house.
Now this screams female emancipation, and the ending of the film might also scream female emancipation, but I cannot bring myself to believe that there is such a thing as freedom and free choice in Pinky.
It might end that way, but the things the protagonist has to do to get her will – get through a racist and biased court trial, explaining to Tom that she wants to fight, because he does not understand why Pinky should have property – all this is completely normal for the late forties, but it still gives you an uneasy feeling. As good as Mr. Thomas Adams seems – at least he is not racist, everyone! – he has the view of a confirmed misogynist.
So, like I said, there are good things. And bad things, but the actors and actresses are certainly not to blame for those.
There is one last fact that may encourage you to watch the movie, something that was thought would get women into the cinema by appealing to the general perception of a “lady’s film”. On the movie poster it reads – alongside the names of the three main characters, the producer, and the director – “The poignant story of a girl who fell hopelessly in love!”
Oh, well. Perhaps now you are intrigued as to where this supposed love story is hidden amidst the tangles of prejudice, racism, and Pinky passing as black. Go see for yourself, because I certainly cannot spoil the whole plot!