Just as Warner Brothers in the 1930s claimed that their crime movies were "ripped from the headlines", so Twentieth Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck chose to specialise in controversial movies after World War Two, addressing issues of the day. This film concerns itself with racial prejudice and miscegenation and follows hard on the heels of "Gentleman's Agreement" and "Boomerang" which dealt with anti-Semitism and "The Snake Pit" which dealt with mental illness.
Jeanne Crain who was of course a white actress plays a light-skinned negro who has been sent north to be educated and trained as a nurse by her hardworking washerwoman granny, Ethel Waters. There she took the opportunity to pass for white and became romantically involved with doctor William Lundigan. Unable to reveal the truth to him, she runs away back to her small southern town where almost everyone knows that Patricia, commonly called Pinky, is really 'one of those', despite her looking no different than the people who treat her like trash. She is soon discouraged by this way of life, so different from her acceptance in Boston, that she packs to return to the lie that she has been living. However, Waters insists that she stay to nurse the local haughty but impoverished lady in the nearby big house, played by Ethel Barrymore with full cantankerous force. When Barrymore dies and leaves the house, contents, and land to Pinky, all hell breaks loose as the greedy relatives and prejudiced townsfolk can not contemplate her having been so rewarded unless she kept Barrymore drugged and incompetent. A hearing follows to challenge the will.
Meanwhile Lundigan has traced his sweetheart and learns the truth about her background. He insists that she leave with him so that they can build a life together, but it is implicit that this would entail moving somewhere where no one would know about her and for her to carry on denying her heritage. (The question of children is not raised by him, although Barrymore who has encouraged her to be her own person has mentioned this in passing).
All three actresses were nominated for Academy Awards for this film, although none of them won. Black actresses Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge campaigned hard to be considered for the lead role, but the story wouldn't have worked as well if Pinky didn't really look the part. In addition, general movie conventions and prejudices of the time being what they were, the Studio would never have gotten away with a black actress kissing a white man and that part of the story would have had to have been written away. In all fairness, Crain does a fine job in the role and one is quite prepared to believe that she really is of Negro descent.
As an interesting sidebar, John Ford -- that giant among directors -- was originally supposed to direct this film, but apparently fell out with Waters during the initial stages. The role was taken over by ex-Broadway maven Elia Kazan who had previously tackled some of Fox's message movies. However one can't help but wonder how different the film might have been had Ford remained at the helm and whether it would be better remembered today.