Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The "Pinky" Controversy and Race Theory

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I've read a couple books (Reel to Real by Bell Hooks and Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks by Donald Bogle) that examine movies from an African-American perspective and they spend the book finding a reason to criticize every single movie and be critical of absolutely everything.

According to one book, Whoopi Goldberg did a lot for the image of black people by showing strong empowered characters on screen, but oh no, she was usually not romantically paired with anyone in films, which sends the message that empowered African-Americans can't find love. The other book doesn't take exception to whether Goldberg's characters were paired romantically, but said the opposite of the first: Whoopi Goldberg bowed to white expectations by infusing too much colloquial dialogue into her films. And I kid you not: another book says that the dance scene between Goldberg and Demi Moore being switched for Patrick Swayzee in "Ghost" was a crack at how uncomfortable whites are at depicting blacks in lesbian relationships.

I absolutely applaud looking at films from a racially critical perspective, but a lot of these African-American critics are so damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't with anything, that why even try to make a racially conscious film if you're not Spike Lee?

I look at this great Elia Kazan film I just recently watched from a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don't perspective. The film features the trials and tribulations of a light-skinned half-black woman (known as Patricia in the North and Pinky back home) as she goes back to her only surviving relative (her black grandmother) after graduating from nursing school in the North.

Complaints about the movie center around the fact that Pinky is played by an entirely white woman and that the filmmakers were too cowardly to cast a woman of color.

I choose to applaud the fact that the film was more progressive than films of its era.
By Jeannie Crain playing the part of the white character, it helped make the film marketable to white audiences. White people would see the film because Jeannie Crain was starring in it and the message would be spread to them whether they liked it or not. There were plenty of films showing black people being abused and they never reached mainstream white America, and I think the subset of the population that would have been enlightened by seeing the film, is also the same subset of the population that wouldn't bother seeing the film if it just starred Ethel Walters and Lena Horne. Why go through all that expense to make a socially conscious film if you're just preaching to the choir?

I also think seeing Jeannie Crain as a black person really drives the point home about how inane racism is. As Julian Bond, NAACP president once said race is a political construct, you often have more in common with someone of a different race genetically than you do of someone in your own race. I've already seen movies of black people being abused, but I've never seen a film of a person of Jeannie Crain's color being abused like a black person.

I admit, I wish they put her in a tanning salon or made some effort to make her a little bit darker, but there are probably some half-black people of her level of pigmentation out there. Putting in an actual mulatto woman who wasn't as famous as Jeannie Crain and couldn't draw in as many people would have been counter-productive, don't you think?

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