“The Ineffaceable Curse of Cain”: Racial Marking and Embodiment in Pinky

“The Ineffaceable Curse of Cain”: Racial Marking and Embodiment in Pinky

Camera Obscura – 43
Volume 15, Number 1
(May 2000)
pages 95-121
DOI: 10.1215/02705346-15-1_43-95

Elspeth Kydd, Senior Lecturer of Film Studies and Video Production
University of the West of England, Bristol

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” 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, 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…

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