Review of DVD Pinky (1949 [1994, 2006] )

February 16, 2007


Black and white films as popular culture provided an nonthreatening space where viewers could experience vicariously the extremes of hatred in the form of injustice, violence, cowardice, and despair, or idyllic romance, heroism, and hope. With the appearance of film classics on VCR in the 1990s — and now on DVD — we can imagine how previous generations spent their leisure hours, and perhaps how popular culture formed and informed their identities and by osmosis some of our own. I watched Pinky, one of the award-winning films1 of 1949 by controversial director Elia Kazan2, and recognized blatant stereotypes that had survived well into the 1950s and 1960s and were in no way limited to the southern states: the rebel girl who refused to conform to suffocating limitations based on gender, geography and race, the deified family doctors, the Black Mammy and preacher who had internalized prejudices and avoided overstepping their assigned status, the grumpy but kind and wealthy spinster, the wise judge, the bigoted but upright citizens of small-town America and white spinsters and matrons with formidable undeserved power to sway public opinion through gossip.

The overt racism of most of the cast of small rural town Alabama in the 1940s cut across lines of colour. The ubiquitous role of a heavy-set, weary but wise black maid was played by Ethel Waters (b. 1900) as Granny Dysey Johnson, who worked for a wealthy widow Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) in her fine southern mansion. Granny Dysey lived a form of internalized racism which we only began to name in the post-colonial period. Her rejection of her granddaughter’s white fiancée was as adamant as Mrs. Woolly insistence that a store clerk interrupt her transaction with the ‘colored’ Pinky to serve a white customer first. The main character, the granddaughter Patricia ‘Pinky’ Johnson, played by Jeanne Crain (b. 1925), was ashamed of her black blood and “passed” for white, leaving her home in Alabama for a northern nursing school. While taking care of the ailing Miss Em they developed mutual respect and learned from each other. Gradually Pinky came to accept her black roots while refusing any limitations they placed on her, no easy feat in the 1940s in Alabama.

When Miss Em bequeaths her estate to Pinky the town turns against her. Neither the black nor white population want her to take possession of the mansion. Mrs. Wooly, Miss Em’s cousin who feels she was defrauded out of her inheritance challenges the will in a court of law.

Oddly enough Jeanne Crain is very Caucasian, which is quite confusing in scenes such as when Pinky and her grandmother literally walk the gauntlet of angry jurors following the verdict in her favour. Crain earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her role, one of the few serious roles she played. Apparently Lena Horne had wanted this role but was rejected to avoid unsettling contemporary audiences who would have been uncomfortable with the affection between the coloured Pinky and her white Bostonian fiancée.

Following the judge’s decision to accept the will as valid, Pinky and her fiancée Dr. Thomas Adam returned to Miss Em’s stately mansion. We see them from the second floor looking small and insignificant in the spacious foyer. As they walk from room to room they become more and more distant from one another. Dr. Adam calculates the value of expensive heirlooms and plans on the disposal of Miss Em’s valuable belongings. In an off-handed way he informs Pinky of his new position in Denver, which would be their new home. He had to leave his medical practice in Boston since the story of the court case had made the news there too. Once they were married she would no longer be Pinky Johnson. Her new identity would be as Mrs. Thomas Adam. She could leave all of the small-town bigotry, humiliations and injustice behind her. But this announcement had the opposite effect on Pinky who felt that the magnanimous gift from Miss Em had to be met with an equally grand gesture on her part. In the closing shots we see the estate transformed into a bustling clinic and child care facility.

The author of the novel on which this film was based was Cid Ricketts-Sumner, an educated woman with an MA from Columbia University and some medical training. She was one of a small group of people willing to discuss complex racial relations, hybridity4, miscegenation and the phenomena of passing3 in her novels Quality (1946) and But the Morning Will Come (1949).

In 1927 Zeigfeld’s Show Boat opened and became the longest running musical of the 1920s. The unlikely themes of this modern musical5 included hybridity, miscegenation and the phenomenon of passing. By the time Ricketts-Sumner published her second book But the Morning Will Come (1949) on the theme of passing, her first was already in film. Renamed Pinky, it was directed by Elia Kazan with script writing by Phillip Dunne (1908-1992) and Dudley Nichols (1895-1960), both activists in their own way. Show Boat was making another comeback with a Broadway version in 1947 and an MGM film version in 1951.


1 Academy Awards, USA: Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role Jeanne Crain (b. 1925), Best Actress in a Supporting Role Writers Guild of America, USA: WGA Award (Screen) for The Robert Meltzer Award (Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene).

2 Pinky was referenced in Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream (1998).

3Other books about passing include Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and James Weldon Johnson’s (1912 [1927]) The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Qualls (1949) claimed Sumner lacked writing skills evident in the way in which she inserted profound lectures on race unconvincingly delivered by her female character Bentley Churston, a high school graduate married to a part-Negro husband. James Weldon Johnson 1912 book about passing, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, was republished with a major publisher in 1927 during the Harlem Renaissance. According to the Literary Encyclopedia entry, Johnson’s book “influenced the form and content of later African American novels by authors ranging from Johnson’s contemporaries to mid-century novelists such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.”

4 Basu interprets literature on similar themes and identifies various forms of prejudice according to contemporary political economies. His references to the work of Deleuze, Guattari, Hardt, Foucault, Balibar, Wallerstein and Nella Larsen drew my attention to the impact of shifts in political economies on the changing face of racism.

In the incorporation of different peoples into a global economy, racism operates through what Wallerstein calls an” ‘ethnicization’ of the work force,” a process which adjusts different “human genetic and social pools” to the “hierarchical needs of the economy” at different times and in different places (Balibar 1991:33-34). Perhaps Deleuze and Guattari come closer to the phenomenon being addressed here in their assertion that racism operates “by the determination of degrees of deviance in relation to the White-Man face” (1987:178); that is, the deviance from the physiognomy of whiteness. Commenting on the above passage from Deleuze and Guattari, Michael Hardt suggests that we speak of racist practice “not in terms of exclusion but as a strategy of differential inclusion” (146) (Basu 2002:1).

5 South African author Alan Paton’s (1903-1988) Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) about race relations in this novel situated in pre-apartheid South Africa was turned into a shallow melodramatic musical called Lost in the Stars (1949) by Kurt Weill. In 1951 Zolton Korda directed the film version of Cry, My Beloved Country. Author Alan Paton contributed to the screenplay version.

Selected webliography and bibliography

Abel, Elizabeth, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen, eds. , 1999. Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Wallerstein. 1991. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso.

Basu, Biman. 2002. “Hybrid embodiment and an ethics of masochism: Nella Larsen’s Passing and Sherley Anne William’s Dessa Rose.African American Review. Fall.

Basu, Biman. The Commerce of Peoples: A Reading of African American Literature.

Butler, Judith. 1999. “Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge.” Abel, Elizabeth, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen, Eds. Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Berkeley: University of California Press. 266-84.

Butler, Octavia. 1988. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. “Coldness and Cruelty.” Masochism. New York: Zone Books. 9-138.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fauset, Jessie. 1926 [1990] Plum Bun. 1926. Boston: Beacon Press.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1999-2007. “A Timeline of Show Boat, Pinky and Other Tales of Miscegenation.”

Ford, Henry. 1922 [1973]. My Life and Work. New York: Amo.

Foucault, Michel. Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984: Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: New P, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984. Ed. Lawrence Kritzman. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1992. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International.

Hardt, Michael. 1998. “The Global Society of Control.” Discourse 20:3: 139-52.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: an Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change.

Henderson, Mae. 1999. “The Stories of (O)Dessa: Stories of Complicity and Resistance.” Abel, Elizabeth, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen, eds. Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Berkeley: University of California Press. 285-304.

Kazan, Elia. 1949 [1994, 2006]. Pinky.

Larsen, Nella. 1928 [1991] Passing. 1928. Salem: Ayer.

McDowell, Deborah. 1986. “Introduction.” Quicksand and Passing. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP. ix-xxxv.

Morrison, Toni. 1988. Tar Baby. New York: Knopf.

Naylor, Gloria, and Toni Morrison. 1985. “A Conversation.” Southern Review NS 21. July. 567-93.

Parry, Benita. 1988. “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse.” Oxford Literary Review 9: 27-58.

Qualls, Youra. 1949. “World They Never Made: Only the Anatomy of Disaster: Reviews of Alien Land by Willard Savoy and But the Morning Will Come by Cid Ricketts Sumner.” Phylon (1940-1956). 10:2:185-187.

Ricketts-Sumner, Cid. 1946. Quality.

Ricketts-Sumner, Cid. Tammy

Ricketts-Sumner, Cid. 1949. But the Morning Will Come. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. 302 pp.

Sullivan, Neil. 1998. “Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Fading Subject.” African American Review. Fall.

Williams, Sherley Anne. 1987. Dessa Rose. New York: Berkley.

Williams, Sherley Anne. 1990. “Meditations on History.” Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds. Ed. Mary Helen Washington. New York: Anchor. 230-77.

©© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. Review of the DVD Pinky (1949). Copyright Creative Commons License 2.5

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