Pinky, 1949 (or, starring the whitest black actress you’ve ever seen)

Pinky’s not a familiar story to those of us who didn’t live through the Jim Crow era.

This film follows the title character as she returns home to rural Alabama after several years at nursing school in Boston. Pinky was raised by her grandmother, Dicey, in a small cabin while Dicey scrimped every penny washing other people’s laundry so that her granddaughter could get an education and never wash other people’s laundry. The kicker is that Pinky is a light-skinned African-American woman who spent her time in the North omitting her true background and living without the daily discrimination that she would face in her home town.

Things get prickly shortly after Pinky’s arrival. She manages to run afoul of both black and white residents of her town and plans to make a hasty retreat back north. Her return to the North is postponed when Pinky commits to nursing her grandmother’s boss, Miss Em while she’s on her deathbed. Miss Em lives in a big, old, antebellum mansion that’s seen better days. Despite the home’s decrepit appearance, the house, its land and its valuable antique contents are worth a fortune. Miss Em’s relatives are chomping at the bit to collect their inheritance. Ethel Barrymore’s Miss Em projects a gruff exterior, but actually harbors a soft spot for Pinky and Dicey. She warns Pinky of the dangers of living as something other than herself. The real shocker comes after Miss Em passes, leaving her mansion, with its antes and its bellums and its Scarlett O’Hara staircase, to Pinky. Miss Em’s relatives don’t take kindly to their inheritance going to an outsider, much less the washer-woman’s granddaughter, and very much less the granddaughter of the washer-woman who happens to be black. A legal case ensues and things get ugly.

It’s during this time that Pinky is surprised by a visit from her northern beau, a Boston physician named Tom. Tom isn’t just white. Tom could pass for a Kennedy. He takes Pinky’s revelation about her background surprisingly well, mostly because he has no grasp of it. After all, he’s not racist. But of course, Pinky will have to go back to pretending to being white after they get married and return to Boston, because a white Boston physician simply cannot marry a woman of color in 1949.

This is where the northern manifestation of racism bumps up against the southern manifestation of racism. The list of Southern offenses in terms of racism is not short.  Segregated transportation systems, drinking fountains, and schools; church bombings; lynchings; Emmet Till, and I could go on. But the dirty little secret of the North is that there was and is racism there, just with a different accent. Racism is the reason for discriminatory mortgage-lending policies. Racism is the reason why my home town was filled with trash cans labelled “Keep Dearborn clean.” Racism is the reason Detroit burned in riots 1943 and 1967. It’s there, as much as many Northerners would like to pretend that racial discrimination is some sort of exotic creation of the South. It’s an illusion that’s easier to maintain when the black people stay on the other side of the freeway.

Despite this glimmer of self-awareness, the film has casting that’s downright bizarre. Jeanne Crain as PInky is supposed to be playing a light-skinned black woman. But Jeanne Crain doesn’t resemble a light-skinned black woman. Jeanne Crain is about as anglo-saxon as it gets. Her family heritage is English, Irish and French, according to Wikipedia and though that item doesn’t have a citation, it’s easily believable.  Supposedly, both Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were interested in the role of Pinky and they could have rocked it.

I could find no real explanation for Crain’s casting other than fears of making the film too controversial in the production notes at Right. You wouldn’t want a film about racism to be controversial. Had the film starred an African-American lead actress, it would undoubtedly have ruffled many feathers. The kissing scenes between Pinky and Tom would have shown a white actor, William Lundigan, kissing a black actress, as opposed to a white guy kissing a white woman pretending to be a black woman pretending to be a white woman. I suppose part of the circular logic of the time was that white audiences would have a harder time justifying the racism experienced by Pinky if she looked more like them. In a weird way, that was probably true. But how sad that producers felt, and probably still feel, as though people can only feel sympathy for those who look like themselves. It’s the height of ironies that in 1949, a film with an anti-discrimination message would have only one main character played by a black actor. That was Ethel Waters, who played Pinky’s grandmother, Dicey.

But, considering that it is 2013 and people freaked out about this Cheerios commercial, maybe we have little room to judge the filmmakers from 1949. We’re not quite there yet.

The upside is that Crain actually does a good job with the role. In the beginning, she comes across as passive and disconnected, which works on a symbolic level, as that’s what Pinky has been doing for the last several years of her life. Hiding herself. As the film unfolds, she becomes more passionate and you do start to feel a sense of love between Pinky an Dicey. I just think an African-American actress could have done at least as good of a job, and a more believable one.

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