After years away from home, light-skinned black woman Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Crain) returns to the Southern town where she was raised. She’s warmly welcomed by her Granny (Waters), but complex emotions remain: while Pinky was up North attending nursing school she hid her background and passed as white. Thus returning home feels like a big step down. Soon, Pinky vows to leave the South, but Granny convinces her to stay and care for the dying Miss Em (Barrymore), a white lady whom Granny cherishes. The unlikely relationship that develops between the ailing Miss Em and her nurse will change the course of Pinky’s life.
This scorching attack on American ignorance and racism was daring for the time, and so who better to direct it than firebrand Kazan (who’d portrayed the evils of anti-semitism two years before in “Gentleman’s Agreement”). Both films inevitably seem tamer now, but can still stir outrage, as when Pinky is assaulted by redneck thugs, or more subtly humiliated in a variety of ways by the white citizenry. Though it’s hard to believe the Oscar-nominated Crain could be of black descent, the power of the story and the performances ultimately make this defect seem minor. (Note: Waters and Barrymore, who also earned Oscar nods, are the real standouts here.) By all means, make time for “Pinky”.