USA 1949, 102 mins
Director: Elia Kazan

Please note: these articles contain language or other content that reflect views prevalent in its time, but that may cause offence today. The articles are included here for historical or cultural reasons.

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away the film’s ending.

Contemporary reviews

Subtlety in presenting a problem picture is not one of Hollywood’s virtues: the accusing finger pointed at the audience, the hammering home of arguments too often vitiate the effect of the message. Pinky is all the more welcome in that, although the controversial subject is never forgotten, situations are in no way contrived, and the problem grows out of the plot rather than vice versa.

Pinky is a negress, trained in the North as a nurse, and so fair that she has been able to pass as white. Her problem is whether to marry a white doctor, and so to live a lie, or to use her nurse’s training to help her own people. The ambiguity of her position, resented both by whites and negroes, allows for no easy decision, and the film never assumes that the colour question can be smoothed over with a few easy platitudes. For this, and for the absence of sensation – the undercurrent of feeling is more impressive than a lynching would have been – the film deserves great praise.

The Zanuck gloss on the production insures the picture’s entertainment value; Kazan’s slow, forceful direction gives it more moving and impressive qualities. Few directors get better performances out of a cast, or know so exactly how to bring a scene to an end at its logical conclusion, and how to keep a picture moving during long stretches of dialogue. The script is intelligent, with very few lapses into the soapbox or pulpit manner, and the photography, clear-cut figures, and misty shots of the decayed plantations, is excellent.

If Pinky’s predicament remains slightly less moving than it might have been, this is perhaps the fault of Jeanne Crain, who looks convincing, but cannot quite suggest the interior force which the part demands. Smaller parts are beautifully played, notably Ethel Waters, the loyal and dignified embodiment of the slave tradition, and Evelyn Varden, a vulgar, snobbish object lesson in the evils of race prejudice.
P.H., Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1949

Hollywood’s first three ‘colour-bar’ films have already grossed more than 7,000,000 dollars at the American box-office. Here is a gauge of the readiness of audiences to welcome any sign of freshness from an industry that has gone tired on them. And here too, is evidence of the quickness with which that industry can still recognise, exploit and control a trend. The trend emanates from the conscience which, to the advantage of the cinema, has always dogged Hollywood. The trail was laid with Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement, dramatically effective films that flirted with the ‘Jewish problem’. Making them called for courage and discredited their producers at the time. To their box-office rehabilitation Home of The Brave, Pinky, Lost Boundaries and other ‘racials’ in progress can be credited. The flirtation has been transferred to the safer areas of the ‘negro problem’ where a multifarious, multicoloured selection of special cases offer themselves for dramatisation.

Pinky (well, but not brilliantly played by Jeanne Crain) is a Negro girl of unblemished white pigmentation whose old darkie grandmother (beautifully played by Ethel Waters) has pinched and saved to send her to college. There she had fallen into the easy temptation of passing as white, and as such falling in love with a white doctor (William Lundigan). Returning as a graduate nurse to the Cabin in the South, the sensitive and civilised Pinky is subjected to the full litany of racial prejudice, from both sides of the bar. Both negroes and whites hate her white skin and city manners. The film valuably succeeds in showing the roots of that prejudice to be as deep on one side as the other.

Pinky’s ordeal is brought home by the director, Elia Kazan, in vivid, compelling incidents – the instantaneous change from servility to savagery by the police when Pinky, involved (and out-acted) in a brawl with Nina Mae McKinney, tells them she is coloured; the scene in the store; her pursuit at night by two drunken white men.

But Pinky’s dilemma – shall she forsake her race and become ‘white’ or proclaim it and lose her lover? – is side-tracked into never-never-land. There is a dying, wise old patronne (Ethel Barrymore) to restore her to proper Negro pride, and leave her the family mansion. There is an upstanding Southern judge to uphold the will and flout a court seething with lynching fever. And a final celibate solace for Pinky – since the world’s most polyglot Democracy cannot abide a hint of miscegenation – is running her mansion as a super clinic for Negro children, manned by a Negro staff.

All this apart, the cardinal crippling evasion of Pinky lies in the selection of an established white film actress to play the heroine. Thus is the audience insulated against the shock of seeing white and Negro embrace, against any effect of realism. I do not doubt that Pinky will leave Negro baiters comfortably purged and as rabid as ever, and I have even less doubts as to its effects on Negroes. As for average audiences: they will come from Pinky touched, entertained and unperturbed by a well-made and well-acted film drama.

I praised these films at the time for its courage in approaching an evil any civilised man wants to see ironed out flat. But the unease that was there has crystallised with second thoughts. Films that raise such issues and bulk them are not merely negative but dangerous. And it’s necessary to say so firmly, since they are trading heavily on their ‘progressiveness’. When a racial film is ruthlessly honest in its issues, or when it unambiguously implies equal rights and status for the American Negro (including the assumption that intermarriage with whites is no less unobjectionable and irrelevant than between Jew and Gentile, Catholic or Protestant), or when it just so much as documents a plain, typical story, without recourse to a fake solution; then will be the occasion, I think, to bring out the word courage.
Richard Winnington, Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1950

Two women discuss the complexities of defining their racial identities.

Director: Daisy Ifama
UK 2017
3 mins

Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Script: Philip Dunne, Dudley Nichols
Based on the novel Quality by: Cid Ricketts Sumner
Photography: Joseph MacDonald
Editor: Harmon Jones
Art Directors: Lyle Wheeler, J. Russell Spencer
Music: Alfred Newman

Jeanne Crain (Pinky)
Ethel Barrymore (Miss Em)
Ethel Waters (Dicey)
William Lundigan (Dr Thomas Adams)
Frederick O’Neal (Jake Walters)
Evelyn Varden (Melba Wooley)
Basil Ruysdael (Judge Walker)

USA 1949
102 mins

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T A P E was founded in 2015 as a response to the lack of representation on screen.
Find out more about this curatorial collective at tapecollective.co.uk

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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