Pinky Johnson (Jeanne Crain) returns to the South to visit Dicey (Ethel Waters), the illiterate black laundress grandmother who raised her. Pinky confesses to Dicey that she passed for white while studying to be a nurse in the North. She had also fallen in love with white Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan), who knows nothing about her black heritage.
Pinky is harassed by racist local law enforcement while attempting to reclaim money owed to her grandmother. Later two white men try to sexually assault her. Dr. Canady (Kenny Washington), a black physician, asks Pinky to train black students who want to become nurses, but Pinky tells him she plans to return North.
Dicey asks her to stay temporarily to care for her ailing, elderly white friend and neighbor, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). Pinky has always disliked Miss Em and lumps her in with the other bigots in the area. Pinky relents and agrees to tend Miss Em after learning that she personally cared for Dicey when she had pneumonia. Pinky nurses the strong-willed Miss Em, but does not hide her resentment. As they spend time together, however, she grows to like and respect her patient.
Miss Em bequeaths Pinky her stately house and property when she dies, but greedy relative Melba Wooley (Evelyn Varden) challenges the will. Everyone advises Pinky that she has no chance of winning, but something she herself does not fully comprehend makes her go on. Pinky begs retiring Judge Walker (Basil Ruysdael), an old friend of Miss Em's, to defend her in court. With great reluctance, he agrees to take the case. Pinky washes clothes by hand when her grandmother is sick in order to pay court expenses. At the trial, despite hostile white spectators and the non-appearance of the only defense witness, presiding Judge Shoreham unexpectedly rules in Pinky's favor. When Pinky thanks her attorney, he coldly informs her that justice was served, but not the interests of the community in his opinion.
Tom, who has tracked Pinky down, wants her to sell the inherited property, resume her masquerade as a white woman, marry him and leave the South, but she refuses, firmly believing that Miss Em intended her to use the house and property for some purpose. As a result, they part. In the end, Pinky establishes "Miss Em's Clinic and Nursery School" for blacks.Jeanne Crain as Patricia "Pinky" Johnson
Ethel Barrymore as Miss Em
Ethel Waters as Dicey Johnson
William Lundigan as Dr. Thomas "Tom" Adams
Basil Ruysdael as Judge Walker
Kenny Washington as Dr. Canady
Nina Mae McKinney as Rozelia
Griff Barnett as Dr. Joe McGill
Frederick O'Neal as Jake Walters
Evelyn Varden as Melba Wooley
Raymond Greenleaf as Judge Shoreham
Arthur Hunnicutt as Police Chief (uncredited)
The film enjoyed wide success in the southern United States, but was banned by the city of Marshall, Texas, for its subject matter. There, W. L. Gelling managed the segregated Paramount Theater, where blacks were restricted to sitting in the balcony. Gelling booked Pinky for exhibition in February 1950, a year in which the First Amendment did not protect movies, per Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915).
The City Commission of Marshall "reactivated" the Board of Censors, established by a 1921 ordinance, and designated five new members who demanded the submission of the picture for approval. The board disapproved its showing, stating in writing its "unanimous opinion that the said film is prejudicial to the best interests of the citizens of the City of Marshall." Gelling nonetheless exhibited the film and was charged with a misdemeanor.
Three members of the Board of Censors testified that they objected to the picture because it depicts (1) a white man retaining his love for a woman after learning that she is a Negro, (2) a white man kissing and embracing a Negro woman, (3) two white ruffians assaulting Pinky after she has told them she is colored. Gelling was convicted and fined $200. He appealed the conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
After Gelling filed his appeal, the Court decided the landmark free speech case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson (1952) that extended First Amendment protection to films. The Court then overturned Gelling's conviction.
Pinky was Twentieth Century Fox's top-grossing film of 1949. It was the second most popular film of the year in 1949.