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Look at my fingers, are not the nails of a bluish tinge ... that is the ineffaceable curse of Cain ... Dion Boucicault, The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana
The 1949 film Pinky presents a central mulatto character as a method for focusing attention on issues of race and racism.(1) As one of a series of liberal films released shortly after the Second World War, Pinky approaches issues of race and racism as "social problems." Yet this film, as do others of this movement, demonstrates more ambiguities around racial categorizations than it offers solutions for dealing with postwar racial tensions.(2) Made during the Hays Code's ban on the representation of miscegenation, Pinky confronts the issue of interracial relations more overtly than many other films of its time by focusing its narrative on the difficulties experienced by a mixed-race woman. The character of Pinky faces crises over passing, as she is torn between her "birthright" and the "mess of pottage"(3) that she would gain by identifying as white.
Pinky uses the mulatto character to gain audience sympathies, exploring the effects of Southern racism by subjecting the almost-white main character to racially motivated degradations.(4) Significantly, the film embodies the mulatto through a white actress, producing an ambiguous interplay of audience identifications. The film engages multiple deployments of the mulatto character: Through the actress, through the social context of the Hays Code, through the visual conventions it deploys, and through its narrative, which draws on the historical and rhetorical development of the mulatto character. These multiple and often contradictory impulses provide the film with a complex and conflicted understanding of race. Some moments in the film seem to point to race as a cultural and social construction, whereas at other moments the absolute primacy of race as a social category is reaffirmed and consolidated. These conflicts are most significantly embodied by the main character, Pinky, since her narrative role as the mulatto, trapped between black and white, interacts with her visual portrayal as a character neither black nor white, embodied by a white actress. These ambiguities are also played out in the film's narrative articulation of the politics of family and inheritance. The history of the representation of miscegenation and mulattos, both in literature and film, frequently focuses on the issue of family ties between black and white Americans. This dramatic "liberal" film overtly uses inheritance as a method for examining racism.
Based on the 1946 best-selling novel Quality by Cid Ricketts Sumner,(5) Pinky is set in the South, where Patricia "Pinky" Johnson (Jeanne Crain) has returned home from nursing school "up yonder," in the North. She returns to the small shack where her grandmother, Dicey Johnson (Ethel Waters), makes a living as a washerwoman. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Pinky has been passing for white and is involved with a white man, Tom (William Lundigan), whom she is fleeing. Close to where her grandmother lives is an old, decaying plantation where lives an old, decaying member of the Southern aristocracy. Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) is Dicey's friend, and when she gets sick, Dicey persuades Pinky to stay on and nurse her. Pinky temporarily agrees but decides to leave as soon as possible after a series of humiliating encounters with Southern racism. When Miss Em finally dies, however, she leaves her house and all her property to Pinky. The will is then contested in court by Miss Em's relatives, led by Mrs. Wooley (Evelyn Varden), Miss Em's cousin. Pinky wins the case and stays, despite the appeals of Tom. She turns the house into a clinic and nursery school for the poor and oppressed black community, ultimately identifying with this community herself.
Pinky has received critical attention for its representation of racial politics. For example, Donald Bogle explores the film's stereotypes, identifying the casting of white actress Jeanne Crain in the lead role of Pinky as the film's ultimate flaw.
More than any other film in which a white has played a black role, Pinky typified the movie industry's methods of grasping audience identification.... Ethel Waters as Granny ... is shown washing, ironing, or performing other menial chores ... [but] when Jeanne Crain's Pinky was forced to take in washing ... as she stood over a scrubbing board with carefully placed studio sweat rolling off her perfect porcelain white face--white audiences were automatically shocked and manipulated so that they sympathized with this lovely white girl compelled to work like a "nigger." ... Jeanne Crain as Pinky made a far more successful movie but a far less honest one, too.(6)
In Bogle's argument, the audience's recognition of Jeanne Crain's whiteness is fundamental to the narrative success of Pinky. Pinky's degradation, played in whiteface, is more poignant for a potential white audience. The casting of a white actress not only garners white audience identification; it also reaffirms the centrality of whiteness as the norm against which nonwhite people are designated "other." As Lola Young suggests, this type of casting choice affirms "the assumption that `whiteness' provides the `base' for portraying the complexities of human subjectivity."(7)
Pinky relies for its effect on the simultaneous identification of white actress Jeanne Crain and black character Pinky. The play between the extratextual knowledge of the whiteness of the actress and the diegetic necessity of the character's blackness is at the heart of the film. Yet this process of identification has complex ramifications. As Mary Ann Doane suggests, it "tends to demonstrate inadvertently the quiescent discordance between ideologies of racial identity (defined by blood) and cinematic ideologies of the real (as defined by the visible)."(8) The cinematic representation of a mulatto character requires the embodiment of a mulatto, in the form of an actor, whose own racial identity comes into play in the representation of the character.(9)
This embodiment engages a crisis of representation of racial mixing. In terms of the visual schema (and the audience's extratextual knowledge of the actress) Pinky is white, yet narratively, she is black. The existence of an "extra white body,"(10) the nondiegetic one of the white actress, replaces the exclusion of other white bodies, diegetic absences in the narrative. In all the examples Doane explores, in which white actresses play mulatto characters (Sirk's Imitation of Life , Pinky, Lost Boundaries [dir. Alfred Werker, 1949], and Showboat [dir. James Whale, 1936, and dir. George Sidney, 1951]), the miscegenetic relationship and the white ancestor(s) that created the mulatto character are completely absent from the films. The examples she does not cite, Kings Go Forth and Band of Angels, however, absent instead the black relative. No narrative of this period shows both parents, either together or separately. Yet interestingly, the race of the parent who is shown relates to the ultimate destiny of the character. In Band of Angels and Kings Go Forth, the mulatto is raised by a white parent. In both films there is an ambiguous resolution in which the mixed-race woman pursues and appears successfully to attain her white male object of desire.
Pinky, like the other films in which the mulatto character is identified with the black community, makes no mention of how Pinky comes by her white physical characteristics. Her only living relative is Dicey. There is only one brief mention of a dead mother and no mention at all of a father. This absence is specific to the film; in the book from which the film was adapted, Quality, information about Pinky's white father can be assumed secondhand from conversations with Dicey. In his article comparing the book and the film, Christopher John Jones suggests that this is partially a function of the novel, which allows for more exposition on matters not directly related to the development of plot than is possible for film.(11) Yet Pinky's function as part of the mythification of the stereotype of the tragic mulatto relates it to other cinematic representations. Since most of the other examples of classical Hollywood films with mulattos, either passing or not, do not show the interracial family structures, Pinky's negation and censorship of interracial sex are not only a general function of adaptation from book to film, they are also specifically part of Hollywood's repression and displacement of miscegenation. Even in the example of Kings Go Forth, in which the interracial marriage is openly …