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Laramie Movie Scope:

Negro female passing for white confronts hometown prejudice

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1949, b/w) Following six years in nursing school and training in Boston, light-skinned Patricia "Pinky" Johnson (Jeanne Crain) returns to her granny's ramshackle home in Alabama. Overjoyed to have her granddaughter back, Dicey Johnson (Ethel Waters) then realizes why Pinky hadn't corresponded as often in the latter years: "I do know what you done. And you know I never told you to pretend you is what you ain't."

Passing for white up north, Pinky apologizes: "I didn't mean to, Granny. It just happened." Pious and exceptionally generous, Granny, earning a living as a washerwoman, has also been taking care of Miss Emma (Ethel Barrymore), a white woman of 80 - land rich but cash poor - doing her laundry without being paid. Pinky, remembering being driven out of Miss Em's garden as a child, regards the old woman, living in a mansion formerly "slave-built, slave-run," with disdain.

Director Elia Kazan's anti-racist drama (with uncredited initial direction by John Ford), challenging the audience to examine its conscience, was adapted from Cid Ricketts Sumner's novel by screenwriters Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols (with uncredited contributions from Kazan and Jane White). When Granny receives a letter addressed to Patricia from a doctor in Boston, she burns it; Jake Walters (Frederick O'Neal), a colored shyster, offers to write and send a telegram for the illiterate Dicey, remarking: "Deductible item from what I owe you."

After escaping from two white boys intending to rape her, Pinky begins packing to return to Massachusetts where she was treated as a human being, like an equal. Granny pleads with her to stay to take care of Miss Em who after suffering a heart ailment needs a trained nurse, though she can't afford to pay Pinky for the services. Pinky resists complying.

"I worked long and hard to give you an education," says Granny, "and if they done educated the very heart out of you, everything I've worked and slaved so hard for is wrong." Pinky replies: "I should never have come back here." Granny tells of how when she was ill with pneumonia, Miss Em took on all the tasks of caring for her.

Acquiescing to Granny's supplication, Pinky receives instructions from Dr Joseph McGill (Griff Barnett) before beginning her involvement, including dusting furniture and ornaments, with a bedridden, mean, nagging elderly lady. A colored physician, Dr Canady (Kenny Washington), invites Pinky over to his house for dinner, hoping to entice her into setting up a nursing school for colored girls. She politely rebuffs him, having other plans.

Protesting to Miss Em that she deserves respect, Pinky instead receives Miss Em's rebuke: "Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn't." Pinky stubbornly answers: "How I live my life is my own business, Miss Em." Subsequent to Pinky's outburst of outrage against white people's unjust treatment of herself - "What am I then? You tell me. You're the ones that set the standards, you whites. You're the ones that judge people by the color of their skins. By your own standards, by the only ones that matter to you, I'm as white as you are. That's why you all hate me. What should I do? Dye my face? Grovel and shuffle? Say 'yes'm' and 'no'm'? Marry some man like Jake Waters? Carry a razor in my stocking?" - Miss Em says naively: "Nobody hates you, Pinky."

After receiving a curious telegram from "Pinky" Johnson, Dr Thomas Adams (William Lundigan) flies to Birmingham to search for and locate Patricia, the woman he hopes to wed. Hearing her confession of being a Negro, he tries to assure her that they can face this obstacle rationally. "What's rational about prejudice?" Pinky says.

"I don't think I'm prejudiced," Tom replies: "I'm a doctor and I hope enough of a scientist not to believe in the mythology of superior and inferior races. It is a tricky business, though." In a passionate embrace, she nonetheless puts off leaving with him: "I'm on a case…. It's a debt that has to be repaid."

A visit from Miss Em's racist relation Melba Wooley (Evelyn Varden), married to her only surviving next of kin, Jeffers Wooley, first cousin, once removed, provides an enlightening contrast with Pinky's ornery, headstrong patient. A bond of affection and mutual appreciation develops between Pinky and Miss Em in the white lady's last days.

Upon disclosure of Miss Em's will, composed in her final hours and signed by Dr McGill, her appointed executor, the Wooleys contest the award of property to Pinky, alleging that Miss Em's sanity was compromised by doping and coercion. When Patricia doesn't follow through by returning to him in Boston, Tom goes to her - bringing clippings of how the black-versus-white legal wrangling has reached northern newspapers - where she expresses her determination, disclaiming being heroic, not to let the Wooleys deny Miss Em her final wishes: "I'll be staying on for a while till this business is settled."

He finds her washing people's laundry to earn enough money to cover court costs; she declines his offer to finance her defense in a trial in which the white community largely expects local tradition and law to prevent a Negro from inheriting the property of a white person. "The express wishes of the dead should not be set aside to gratify the greed or the prejudice of the living," white retired Judge Walker (Basil Ruysdael), long-time friend and legal counsel of Miss Em representing Pinky without expectation of remuneration, argues before Judge Shoreham (Raymond Greenleaf), who alone will rule on the dispute:

"Your honor, this is a small country town. We've always thought that what happened here was our own private concern. This is no longer true. Just as it is no longer true that our country as a whole can exist entirely to itself. What is done in our courts in cases such as this has become a matter of moment in the eyes of the world. Let us examine our conscience. Let us look into our attitude and our tradition. Let us take care lest it be said of us that here there is neither law nor justice."

According to IMDb, in addition to actresses Linda Darnell and Dorothy Dandridge being considered for the lead role: "Lena Horne initially campaigned to play the title role in this movie (she was light enough to photograph 'white'), but in the end, the movie studio felt white American audiences would feel more comfortable with a white actress, especially since love scenes with a white actor were involved." Also of note: "Ethel Waters, who was nominated for an academy award for her performance in this film, was the second African-American actor in history to be nominated for an Oscar."

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Copyright © 2017 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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