Ina Pinkney, Chicago’s “Breakfast Queen,” served up a lot more than Heavenly Hots – her famous pancakes – at her beloved restaurant in Chicago.

She dished up advice to customers, many of whom were as close as family. A community activist, Pinkney was one of the first people to advocate for a ban on smoking in Chicago restaurants. And she transformed her cellphone-free restaurant into a community of its own, a place where no one would feel marginalized or invisible, as she had felt when she was a disabled child dealing with polio.

Now Pinkney, who is Jewish, is also the star of “Breakfast at Ina’s,” a documentary about the final days of her restaurant before she permanently closed the doors on Dec. 31, 2013. The film, which will be shown Sunday and Tuesday as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, chronicles not only her long goodbye to loyal customers but her long life, including a look at the interracial marriage that estranged her from her family for years and her struggles with the return of her polio symptoms, a condition known as post-polio syndrome. “Never mistake my softness for weakness,” Pinkney says in the film.

Pinkney will be attending the film festival and will host a Q&A after the Tuesday showing at the Nickelodeon theater. She’ll also sign copies of her new cookbook, “Ina’s Kitchen: Memories and Recipes from the Breakfast Queen,” at 4:30 p.m. at Sherman’s Books in Portland on Wednesday, March 16.

We spoke with Mercedes Kane, director and co-producer of the film.

Q: Why did you want to make a film about Ina? You must have felt she had something to say, or something to teach people.


A: In the summer of 2013, several months before her restaurant closed, there was an article in the Chicago Tribune. I had never been to her restaurant, I’m sorry to admit, but I was just reading the article and I was struck by how many different layers she had in her life, and how many different trials and struggles she’d overcome to get where she is – and she kept such a positive attitude, too.

Q: You filmed a lot of her regulars. Some well-known people ate there, too, including David Axelrod, a political strategist who worked on the Obama campaign, and Chicago mayor Rahm Emaneul. Who else?

A: The Wachowski siblings. We interviewed Lana Wachowski – they directed “The Matrix.” And Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote “The Interrupters,” which became a documentary. There were a bunch of politicians who have been coming throughout the years. One guy (John Herrara) was a Broadway star. He flew back (from New York) just to go one more time to Ina’s.

Q: Did you consider interviewing her ex-husband for the film? (Bill Pinkney was the first African-American to sail around the world solo.)

A: He lives in Puerto Rico. I would have loved to, but we had really zero budget for the film. I kept hoping he would surprise her and show up on the last day. They do still talk, though. We thought about trying to get a Skype going, but it felt kind of contrived.

Q: Ina is known for coming up with little sayings for her customers. Do you have any favorite Ina sayings?


A: I don’t know if it’s exactly a saying, but this is something that I always think about when I’m living my life with my husband and my family. She talks about Bill and how she believes that in love and in relationships you always show the possibilities and never the limitations that life throws at you all the time. My day-to-day life, whenever I’m caught up in things, now I’m thinking: “Show them the possibilities.”

Q: You must have eaten at the restaurant when you were working on the film. Did you have a favorite dish?

A: I was actually pregnant when we were shooting, so it was like heaven (laughs). I love the Heavenly Hots. I have such a sweet tooth.

Q: Most people have never heard of Ina’s. What made it so special to Chicago?

A: She has done so much for Chicago that I didn’t even put in (the film). She advocated for having a smoking ban in Chicago. She was part of getting rid of antibiotics in food and speaking out on that, and environmental issues in the city and so many other things I had to leave out. We had a little preview screening for people. At one of them one guy spoke out and said, “I can’t believe you didn’t put any of that. She was so instrumental.” But I just couldn’t put it all in, sadly.

Q: What do you want people to take away from this film?

A: When I make films I always do it from the angle of what I call “everyday exception,” so people who are in our community who otherwise may not go noticed by a larger group, or at least outside the walls of our cities or our towns, but who really are doing extraordinary things in some way or another. Ina is a local celebrity at the Chicago level, but it’s really nice to share her story outside our local area. She always says she’s fearless. She’s not reckless, but she’s fearless. I think that’s so inspiring because it is so hard to be fearless. I hope people take away a little bit of that spirit of Ina, that fearless spirit.

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