Pinky

Screening Friday November 11 at 3pm

 

Though overshadowed by some of the director’s canonized works, (On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire) Pinky (1949) deserves recognition as one of the finest films which dealt with race issues to come out of the first half of the 20th century. As in most of his other works, Elia Kazan succeeds in bringing attention to some of the negative social realities prominent in American society at the time. With Pinky, he lays out a critique of dominant issues concerning race during the Jim Crow era. The contrast between the past experiences of Pinky (Jeanne Craine), and her current experiences in moving back to the South to visit her aunt, Dicey (Ethel Waters), form the central dialectic of this film. From the moment that the audience is taken into the world of the film, we see the distinct divergence between two worlds in 20th century America—a progressive North and a prejudiced South.

“You’ve been denying yourself like Peter denied the Good Lord Jesus,” Dicey tells her niece when she’s told of how Pinky has been passing for white during her time spent in the North. For the first third of the film, we see the way in which Pinky sees herself and is seen by others because of her skin color. The reactions that come from revealing her true identity to strangers speaks volumes on the role that heritage played in one’s life on a day to day basis in the South. A respectful police questioning turns into a jailhouse booking and an inquiry of her safety turns into a near-sexual assault simply as a result of her divulging that she is not white as she may appear. In this sense, the film serves as a reaffirmation of one’s blackness—forming a didactic tale of African-American pride in a time and place where no one wanted blacks to be proud.

Despite its many successes, the film is certainly problematic at times. There lies controversy in the fact that the main character of the film, the symbol of black pride is, in reality, played by a white woman. Lena Horne, a light skinned star, had originally been set for the role of Pinky but as a result of the period in which it was made, the studio felt as though audiences would react better to the role being played by a white woman. The question of how genuine the film is in terms of racial uplift has been called into question as a result. All in all, however, Pinky is a well made film directed by a filmmaker who would go on to be considered one of the all time greats of cinema. Aside from its socio-political messages, the film stands out for its masterful camerawork, mise-en-scène and set design. As Pinky enters the world of the film in the first few shots, one cannot help but recall the images of Dorothy walking through Oz, a strange and mysterious place, in The Wizard of Oz. Tracking shots and pans manage to add a sense of grandeur to the poverty stricken community creating a fascinating dichotomy between what Kazan does with the camera and how he portrays the world of the film.  The “there’s no place like home!” sentiment is certainly echoed throughout Pinky but the question of where exactly “home” is one that remains central to the message of the film. In the end, Pinky proves itself to be a truly underappreciated gem.