Pinky (Elia Kazan, 1949): USA
Reviewed by Byron Potau. Viewed on DVD.
In 1947, Elia Kazan struck Oscar gold with his anti racist film Gentleman’s Agreement, so in 1949 the studio tried it again with Kazan at the helm with Pinky, but Oscar voters didn’t go for it a second time, at least not to the same extent only resulting in a few acting nominations. Neither film has aged very well, both seeming contrived, giving way to easy solutions, and representative of the lesser films of Kazan’s career, but Pinky seems to have the better acting of the two, however, both can at least be appreciated for their attempts at tackling some tough social issues.
Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crain), a light skinned black woman, returns home after passing as a white woman while attending school up north to become a nurse. Her grandmother (Ethel Waters) knows what she has done and makes her feel ashamed, but Pinky, while ashamed, is still confused about who she is. To complicate matters, Pinky has a white doctor that she has fallen in love with, but does not know that she is really black. In only a couple of days back home, the reality of being a black woman comes back to her as she is detained at the local jail by racists cops when they find out she is black, even though they were about to let her go when they thought she was white, and harassed by a couple of white hillbillies who had also treated her respectfully when they thought she was white. Pinky gets guilted by her grandmother into nursing the crabby old white lady, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) that took care of Pinky’s grandmother several years ago. They don’t like each other at first, but soon gain respect for one another, and Miss Em, ultimately, helps Pinky learn not to deny her true self.
The film tries to be an important social film, but the screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Phillip Dunne is a little too obvious in its intentions while also playing it safe, no doubt a byproduct of the era in which it was made. The evil, racist white characters, the shady black characters, the crabby old white lady with a heart of gold, the hard working black grandmother, and the black woman who learns to stop denying her true self by posing as white are all too one dimensional, appearing more like caricatures than real characters. But despite this lack of depth, Ethel Waters, Ethel Barrymore, and Jeanne Crain all give good performances that the audience can root for, perhaps a little too easily at times.
Some credit for the strength of the performances should be due to director Kazan, who was actually brought in to replace John Ford. Though the film suffers from the same self importance that Gentleman’s Agreement had and the melodramatic tones of the film, along with the casting of the white Jeanne Crain as the light skinned black Pinky, soften its impact considerably, it still manages to be mildly entertaining while carrying an important social message.
As for a Kazan film, I can recommend several others before this one, but if you want an example of Hollywood’s good intentions with mixed results this would be the film.