The Perpetual Relevance of Pinky

The Perpetual Relevance of Pinky
Pinky is based on the novel Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner, and it is one of the few racially-themed pictures of the 1940s dealing specifically with the treatment of women of color. Most films approached racism from a male perspective.

Although the film is over 70 years old, the themes it explores are still relevant today.

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. At the time, interracial marriages were not only discouraged by the general public, they were unlawful. Her fiancé believes the marriage can work as long as Pinky denies her roots and continues to masquerade as white.

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 addition to her internal struggle, Pinky endures violent mistreatment by the police, is slandered by townspeople, and barely escapes a brutal rape attempt. These are some of the most important – and frightening – scenes in the film.

While the casting was not part of the public dialogue at the time, the topic must have been on the minds of the producer, Darryl Zanuck, and the rest of the creative team when white actress Jeanne Crain was chosen for the role.

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 racial disparity. 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 support the choice of a white actress in the role?

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 Crain, especially since the film – even with a white actress as the star – was barred from being shown in many theaters in the south, due to its subject matter.

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 impactful the film might have been with Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge as the lead.

When watching the film today, viewers are encouraged to look past the casting - no matter how difficult that might be - and focus on Pinky and her journey. Her strength and determination are excellent examples of how character has no race, and Pinky’s character can be summed up in one word: Quality.

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