When it comes to the 20th Century Fox film Pinky, everyone can agree that the casting of Jeanne Crain in the title role was, to put it kindly, an inappropriate choice.

If you haven’t seen the film – and you should if you are able – it is based on the novel Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner.

Set in Mississippi in the 1940s, it details the journey of a light-skinned woman of color who discovers she can pass for white when she travels north to attend nursing school in Boston. There, she keeps her race a secret, enjoying the same respect and freedom as the white students.

When she and a white doctor fall in love, he proposes. This forces Pinky into a complicated moral dilemma. Her fiancé does not know her true race and she does not know how he will react if he is told. More importantly, even if he accepts her for who she is, marriage between two people of different races is unlawful.

Pinky returns home to her Granny’s house in the south to decide if she can live a happy and fulfilling life married to the doctor, at the high cost of denying her roots.

Few of the racially themed pictures of the 1940s dealt specifically with the treatment of women of color; most approached racism from a male perspective.

Pinky is a strong, determined, educated woman. She freely expresses her anger at the indignities she has suffered because of the color of her skin. She is frustrated that she has to make the choice between the life she desires and the life into which she was born.

In contrast, her Granny, played by Ethel Waters, embodies a woman of a different era. She is used to being intimidated and treated differently. She’s seen a lot of pain, but accepts her life as it is. Insecure and uneducated, she acquiesces easily under pressure from authority figures.

During her visit, Pinky endures mistreatment by the police, is slandered by townspeople, and barely escapes a brutal rape attempt.

The critics admired the film, although they felt that the “happy ending” was contrived and felt that ending the story with Pinky being the benefactress of a wealthy old white woman was trite. And although Crane received positive reviews for her performance, the critics did not go so far as to question the casting of a white woman in the role.

While the casting was not part of the public dialogue regarding the film, the topic must have been on the minds of the producer, Darryl Zanuck, and the rest of the creative team.

One of the screenwriters, Philip Dunne, in an article for the New York Times, stated that “Jeanne Crain, as Pinky, portrays not a race but an individual.”

This seems an odd quote from someone who was writing a film that undeniably had to do with race. Was he so into the character’s journey as an individual that he felt race was a secondary consideration? Or was he simply trying to justify the choice of Crain?

He also expressed how a film like Pinky came with financial risk to the studio, which was surely a great influencer in the casting of Miss Crain in the role, especially since the film – even with a white actress as the star – was barred from being shown in many theaters in the south.

When the film was scheduled to open in Atlanta, the censor would not allow its release to the public until certain “undesirable scenes” were deleted. Those scenes included part of the attempted rape scene, the scene where a policeman violently slaps Pinky, and the scene where Pinky and her white fiancé kiss.

It’s easy to get caught up in the racial politics of the casting; one can’t help but wonder how much more impactful the film might have been. When watching the film today, viewers should endeavor to look past the casting - no matter how difficult that might be - and focus on Pinky and her journey. Her strength and determination can be summed up in one word: quality.

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