Making the Grades
She was a freak of nature. Born of Negro heritage, the genetic accident responsible for her light skin was also the reason she was christened Pinky Johnson (Jeanne Crain). Growing up as a misfit amongst her own kind and resented by the surrounding white community, her Granny (Ethel Waters) scrimps and saves her meager wage as a washer woman to buy Pinky an opportunity to go to school up north.
So why does the young woman, who has been accepted at face value in a Boston nursing school, return to the southern shanty town upon her graduation? Granny is convinced it's because the girl want to pay back her indebtedness by sharing her knowledge with oppressed people. After all that was the dream the elderly woman sacrificed so hard for. Perhaps it has something to do with a very personal letter from a Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan) that arrives addressed to a Patricia Johnson.
Whatever the reason, it is doesn't take long for Pinky to fear she has made a grave mistake. The way she is treated by sales clerks, policemen, the local judge, and even a couple of drunken boys looking for a good time, is as different as black and white once the truth about her color is revealed. (The few content concerns in this film occur in conjunction with these encounters, such as the uttering of racial slurs, authority figures abusing there office and striking a woman across the face, as well as some mild sexual remarks made when two characters try unsuccessfully to restrain and manhandle a woman.)
However, her misgivings have to be set aside when Miss Em (Ethyl Barrymore) takes ill. A relic of the Old South, the once wealthy lady still lives like an aristocrat despite her loss of fortune. Granny, who considers the granddame to be a friend, even continues to slave over her daily demands. Expecting Pinky to do the same, she offers her granddaughter's professional services free of charge when a nurse is required. Out of love for her grandmother, Pinky swallows her personal prejudices and performs the bitter duty.
Ironically, the experience proves to be liberating. As she spends time in servitude to Miss Em, Pinky and her patient develop a mutual respect and appreciation. Suddenly, the girl who once passed herself off for white begins to understand who she really is and see a vision of what kind of role she can fill in the world.
Considering it was made in 1949, Pinky still provides some important insights for contemporary audiences. It asks that we examine what criteria we use when judging others, learn to be true to who we are, and dare to have bigger dreams. Armed with this advice, we too can find the courage to fight for a future full of rose-colored possibilities.
Beyond the movie ratings: What parents need to know about Pinky...
As is often the case in older movies, many characters are shown smoking. Painkillers are referred to (or accused of) doping a patient. Alcohol consumption is also implied, especially when two drunken men accost a young woman and try to hold and fondle her against her will. Some mild sexual remarks and racial slurs are uttered. A young couple exchange kisses. A police officer slaps a woman's face, while the local judicial system handles African-Americans in a partial or condescending way.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Pinky.
How do the attitudes of the time period in which this film was made affect some of the conclusions it comes to? How might it be different if it were made today? Do popular public opinions still influence movies and their messages today?
Pinky accuses the white people of being prejudice, yet what prejudices does she carry? Why is it easier to see the faults of others than those of ourselves? Who would you consider to have the least prejudice? Why?
Both Granny and Miss Em tell Pinky that no one deserves respect if they deny who they really are. What do you think they mean? Do you agree or disagree with their council. What characters, besides Pinky, are pretending to be someone they are not?