Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: "Pinky" Remains a Pointed, Relevant Drama

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 177 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

Pinky (1949)
Running time: 102 minutes
DIRECTOR:  Elia Kazan
WRITERS: Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols (from the novel by Cid Ricketts Sumner)
PRODUCER: Darryl F. Zanuck
EDITOR: Harmon Jones
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters, William Lundigan, Basil Ruysdael, Evelyn Varden, Kenny Washington, and Griff Barnett

Actress Jeanne Crain died Sunday, December 14, 2003, a day before I began writing this review. She earned an Academy Award nomination for her work in the film, Pinky.  Patricia Johnson (Ms. Crain) is a (very) light-skinned black woman living in the north. Years ago her grandmother (Ethel Waters) sent her north so that she could go to school to become a very well trained nurse. Now a graduate nurse, Patricia, better known as Pinky in the dirty, bigoted South where she was born, comes home to help her ailing granny. Pinky, however, is not ready to live again in the pre-Civil Rights South, with all the requisite stepping, fetching, and bowing to crackers that Negroes had to do then.

Her grandmother also uses guilt and guile to get Pinky to watch over an ailing white woman, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), who once ran a boarding school on the grounds of her palatial plantation estate. When Miss Em dies, she bequeaths her property to Pinky, which causes anger and consternation amongst the small town’s backwoods, inbred peckerwoods; it especially infuriates the trashy wife (Evelyn Varden) of Miss Em’s only living relative. Pinky doggedly fights the relatives who contest the will in court, and everyone is against her, from her grandmother to a reluctant retired judge who is acting as Pinky’s lawyer.

That’s just a few of the many hilarious highlights of the film Pinky, which like both film versions of Imitation of Life deals with light-skinned black women trying to “pass” as white women. Many of you would like to believe that there is no need for mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, etc. to pass as white because skin color doesn’t matter any more, or at least not as much as it used to matter. Michael Jackson is trying to make himself white for a reason – it matters. Who would chose to have a dusky or dark complexion over being lighter? This film is timeless as we will always face hate, prejudice, and bigotry based on physical appearance.

The film is well acted (even if Ms. Crain and Ms. Waters are a bit hammy at times) and very well directed. Pinky captures with disheartening accuracy the pain and horror of racism and bigotry. Ms. Waters as granny or Miss Darcy (as she’s also known) plays the quietly suffering mammy a bit too heavily, but the humility and grace in the face of hate she gives the character serves the film quite well. It is also not na├»ve to believe that Pinky would stand up for herself at the great risk of personal injury. Back in the day it was nothing for evil white Christians to brutally and viciously murder black men and women, and that’s what Pinky faced, demanding that the legal system honor her property and inheritance rights.

Most importantly, Pinky is very entertaining, even though at times it is outrageously hilarious. It is, too, an inspirational film about doing the right thing, a feel good movie about triumphant black folks that will hopefully stand strong over time.

7 of 10

1950 Academy Awards: 3 nominations: Best Actress (Jeanne Crain), and Best Supporting Actress (Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters)


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