Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Up North, Pinky’s name is Patricia.  Down South, she is just Pinky.  The film never says so, but the name must have to do with her light skin color.  It is so light, in fact, that she can pass for white.  When she doesn’t mention to people up North that she is black, they assume she’s white.  Instead of struggling against the misperception, she accepts it.  It makes life easier for her.  She doesn’t have to explain where she’s from, who she is, why her grandmother sent her up North to school.  But when the white doctor whom she falls in love with, and who doesn’t know the truth, proposes, she has to decide what to do. She runs away back home to her grandmother to hide, and to decide.  “Passing,” with all the dilemmas and ironies that accompany it, is the crux of the film Pinky (1949; dir. Elia Kazan), which features Jeanne Crain as the title character, and Ethel Waters as her grandmother.

The South in Pinky is relatively monochromatic, or perhaps I should say dichromatic.  Black Southerners live in rustic cabins and engage in field work and menial labor while, in the distance, white columned plantation houses loom.  (The one exception is a young medical doctor).  It’s all pretty monolithic.  At first the film seems to suggest that nothing has changed in the South since emancipation and the end of the Civil War, but in fact we learn that some change has occurred.  The woman who lives in the plantation house, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) is old and impoverished, supposedly.  Her house is deteriorating and empty.  And while the stereotypical racist white South seems strongly entrenched, there are people who seem willing, when pressed, to think independently.

Pinky’s role is central.  This seems so obvious as almost to go without saying.  Her light skin is the key.  She returns to the South not as a menial laborer but as a professional nurse, skilled in her profession.  She’s also an extremely attractive woman.  Two white red necks who try to manhandle her comment on her figure.  She’s black, attractive, educated, professional—all of these qualities somehow intermingling and trying to cancel each other out in this 1949 film.  If Pinky were recognizably African American, if she were not so attractive and light-skinned, then the dynamics of the film would not work as they do. She’s everything as a black woman she should not be.  Pinky’s appearance does raise the question of what race really means, though I’m not sure Kazan’s film intended to explore the question.  Rather it intended to explore the issue of rights under the law, of human rights.

Ironically, we have to assume, given her light skin, that Pinky is the product of racial intermingling, if not by her parents then by some of her ancestors, perhaps even by her grandmother.  Pinky has the option of accepting a white man’s wedding proposal.  Because of her skin color, she can live as a white woman, and no one will know the difference.  The man who proposes, and whom she loves, suggests that they live in Denver, where she can “hide” who she really is.  He’s comfortable with her race, but only, apparently, if she hides it.  When she gives him the option of staying with her in South Carolina, where she will not have to hide her true self, he leaves.  One wonders what options were available to the ancestors one or two generations earlier who contributed to Pinky’s conception.

Pinky is saddled both by the presumptions of the film and of her grandmother concerning the obligations she must honor to her race.  To be clear, this presumption is that she has an obligation, that she’s not entitled to pass as white whether she wishes to or not.  It’s interesting to consider the difference between a film such as this one and the novel by William Faulkner Light in August.  The main character there, Joe Christmas, alternately chooses to live as a black man or a white man and occasionally as an individual who makes no declaration of racial identity at all.  When white people learn that he has been passing for white, that he has even been living with a white woman, they are enraged.  Their rage is racist in nature—Faulkner portrays a South in which clearly defined notions of racial identity hold sway.  The South of Pinky is somewhat different, at once somewhat more benign in attitude, but equally inflexible.  In the film, if Pinky chooses to live as the white Patricia, she’s free to do so up North, somewhere else, but at the cost of betraying her black-skinned granny and the black people of the South where she was born and raised.  It’s Pinky’s Granny, and the African American medical doctor, and Ms. Em herself (as we learn) who insist on this obligation.  Behind them, it’s the white writers and director of the film who insist on it.  A racial imperative has evolved into a social one.  To what extent does the social imperative become an evasion of deeper, more pernicious reasons?  I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the people who made this film, but it is worth considering the gradual evolution of motives—from a situation where a man must accept his black identity because his racist society allows him no alternative, to a situation where a young woman must accept her black identity because of obligations to her race.

Miss Em in the film is a stereotyped character who emerges from her chrysalis into another stereotype.  She’s the crotchety old white woman with a heart of gold—but is her heart gold because she wants to encourage Pinky to honor her obligation to serve “her people” or is it gold because she wants to ensure that the black-at-heart Pinky doesn’t escape to live a white existence in Denver?  Pinky assumes Miss Em is a hateful old racist Southern woman because she remembers being chased out of her yard once as a child.  She’s always assumed this was because Miss Em didn’t want a black child in her yard.  Pinky can’t understand the apparent friendship and close bond that her Granny shares with Miss Em.  Her Granny assures her the connection is real and human and that it has nothing to do with race.  In Pinky the friendship is one way Granny builds her argument for Pinky’s debt to her place.  It’s the result of living in a community where people value one another as people.  Pinky is skeptical of such thinking, as should we viewers of this film be.  No doubt there were such friendships—they’ve been documented in memoirs and fiction (recall the friendship of Molly Worsham and Miss Havisham in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust), but they seem to be reported most often as anecdotes rather than as representative of the norm.

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