Cinematic Identity: Anatomy of a Problem Film

Cindy Patton,
Cinematic Identity: Anatomy of a Problem Film.
University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
ISBN: 0-8166-3412-2
US$19.50 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

From the title, subtitle, and the advertising blurbs, I was expecting from this book an anatomy of a problem film, namely Elia Kazan’s Pinky (USA 1949). But that’s not what the book is. Only a very few of the book’s 141 pages of main text describe or analyze the film. The author instead uses Pinky as a springboard for discussing censorship law and civil rights law preceding and following the film’s release. She has other interests as well, including gay identity and alienation, to which she devotes several pages. I’ll confine my review to a few things she says about Pinky.

The eponymous Pinky is of mixed blood but has passed for white in the North for several years, becoming a nurse and falling in love with a white doctor. Afraid equally of committing to him under false pretenses and of telling him the truth, she returns to the home of her grandmother, who raised her. Her white fiancé finally tracks her down, discovers her secret, and urges her to go away with him, get married, and settle down somewhere where no one knows her ‘true identity’. But she finally decides to stay, largely because of the influence of the dying owner of a run-down plantation estate, who had urged her to be true to her own identity, adding that “no one deserves respect as long as she pretends she’s something she isn’t.” When the old woman dies, she leaves her estate to Pinky, stating in her will that she is confident Pinky will put it to good use. Pinky has to fight in court to have the will upheld, which it is. Sending her fiancé away, she converts the estate into a clinic and nursery school for “her people.”

Patton’s most apt observation, but hardly a fresh point, regards the choice of a white actress to play Pinky. This apparently made the interracial kiss, when her white doctor boyfriend shows up, acceptable to white audiences. But such casting, which was used for Native Americans as well – Henry Brandon as Scar in The Searchers (USA 1956), for example, or Jeff Chandler as Cochise in Broken Arrow (USA 1950) – softens the issue and detracts from the film’s authenticity. Worsening matters, Crain is for Patton – again, the consensus view – a poor actress, stiff and aloof. I think Crain has been unfairly maligned for her performance in this film. Crain was up against two great actresses, Ethel Barrymore as the rich benefactor and Ethel Waters as the long-suffering grandmother. And Crain’s lack of apparent spontaneity seems consistent with, if not a necessary condition of, her character’s racial confusion. But the author’s larger point regarding performance seems to be that Waters gave a ‘method’ performance, that this is the strongest element in the film, and that the triumph of method acting which the film helped usher in led to depictions of black and other minorities that were more persuasive to white audiences than earlier ones. Unfortunately, Patton does not identify clearly what it is about Waters’ performance that is ‘method’, and why in particular method acting made for more effective tolerance of minorities. The answers may be there, but if so they are buried in too much murky theorizing, speculation, and lengthy asides.

There’s no doubt that Pinky presents a genuine problem of identity, but Patton does not zero in on it, perhaps because it is presented too starkly and straightforwardly to interest her. Pinky is challenged to accept her identity as a Negro (the then preferred term), and she finally does. But what’s ignored here is that since she looks white, and genetically must be much more white than black, she is in effect choosing an identity not truly her own but one imposed on her by the dominant society, governed by the ‘one drop of blood’ rule. The film ends in a way that it thinks happy, but Pinky had faced a Hobson’s choice.

A hint to the problem in this book is given early on by the author herself when she suggests that “readers with time on their hands” might want to look at Pinky along with the two versions of Imitation of Life (Stahl, 1934; Sirk, 1959). The time a reader would have to have on his or her hands to watch these three films adds up to less than six hours. Reading and comprehending this book requires one to have much more time on one’s hands than that. The strange thing about the comment is its suggestion that watching three films, one of which is the book’s ostensible object of study, and the other two closely related in theme, is an occupation for idle hours. I dwell on this because it seems indicative of a problem affecting so much of critical writing on film in recent years: the assumption, which probably is unexamined, that reading or writing about films is far more important than actually watching them.

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 11 September 2008

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →