Sapphire (UK 1959)

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This social problem film is fascinating and shocking. It was scripted by Janet Green, who also wrote Victim (UK, 1960), an important film about male homosexuality which was illegal at the time. Both were directed by Basil Dearden. Sapphire’s social problem is race and was released a year after the Notting Hill ‘riots’ caused by white racists and it is framed as a detective story about who murdered the eponymous character. The film starts with a gripping shot, unusual for Dearden whose direction is prosaic, of Sapphire’s body being disposed of so we don’t get to know her other than through other characters. SPOILER ALERT: she is mixed raced but is passing for white and is pregnant by her white boyfriend.

The film is fascinating because it shows us the liberal viewpoint on race at the time; shocking because it is in many ways illiberal. Whilst the protagonist, Nigel Patrick’s investigating officer, Hazard, is shown to be non-racist, in contrast to his assistant (Michael Craig), he still is accepting of racist attitudes. For example, a landlady says she runs a ‘white house’ and Hazard is shown to be understanding when she explains that it’s for economic reasons as she doesn’t want to get a reputation for housing blacks. Such discrimination was criminalised by the Race Relations Act 1965 and shows how important it is to legislate agains bigoted behaviour. I’m sure one of the reasons the racist right are emboldened is because they can enjoy the ‘echo chamber’ of their own views on social media. The old racist complaint, ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking’, probably seems to be true in their filter bubble.

As David Olusoga’s brilliant book Black and British: A Forgotten History shows, during the post-war period black people were increasingly demonised as responsible for economic problems which has more than a few echoes of recent years. Whilst the ruling classes view tended toward the importance of racial purity, hence the fear of miscegenation, the general public were apparently more tolerant. However, scapegoating minorities for the failure of others, fanned by a right wing media, is nothing new.

Sapphire’s problem in representing race is most apparent when Hazard interviews ‘lowlifes’. It is in this scene that the racist tropes, developed by Hollywood, are most evident. The eye-rolling villain, and giggling sidekicks, suggest degenerates and one (black) character states that even though some can pass for white “once they hear the beat of the bongos” they give themselves away.

Racist trope

On the other hand Earl Cameron (the ‘ebony saint’ of British cinema and like Sidney Poitier born in the West Indies), who plays Sapphire’s brother, is represented simply as a grieving brother. He tells Hazard that, “I’m staying at the Dorchester. They take us there.” The line is almost thrown away but is a telling slight on the times.

‘Ebony saint’ Earl Cameron

Finally a note on the detectives. Patrick’s performance is perfectly one note as he’s meant to play the patriarchal, unruffled copper; there’s one incoherent chase sequence but otherwise it’s the plod of his brain cells. The film suggests we can completely trust the Metropolitan Police to prosecute cases without fear or favour. It was barely 20 years later that the Met’s treatment of black people led to the Brixton riots and so Sapphire stands as an example of propaganda as well as a liberal period piece.

2 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    I’m not sure I agree with some of this reading. I’ve always been an admirer of Sapphire and of the Dearden-Relph-Green partnership. Dearden and Relph produced some of the most interesting pictures of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and describing Dearden’s direction as ‘prosaic’ is a bit harsh. With Green they actually made three ‘social problem’ pictures including Life For Ruth (1962) about a parent who refuses a blood transfusion needed by their child. (They made several more problem pictures with other writers.)

    The comparison of Earl Cameron and Sidney Poitier also doesn’t work for me, though I can see why you might thinks so in reference to this particular role. The British film industry treated Earl Cameron very badly after Pool of London (1951) – another excellent Dearden-Relph picture in which Cameron makes a memorable debut.

    Sapphire was made in 1959 and it grapples with racist prejudices at that time. As you point out, the legislation which outlawed the housing colour-bar didn’t come until the 1960s. In some ways, I think the representation of a range of African and what were then ‘West Indian’ characters is again, for the time, quite broad. I think it is interesting to compare the London of Sapphire with that of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom (2016), which uses the same locale of the International Students Club, but ten years earlier than Sapphire.

    Sapphire does attempt to represent the prejudice within the police force, though the patrician Nigel Patrick character doesn’t really open up the possibility of exposing the Met as the later 1970s films and TV plays begin to do.

    It’s odd how Victim has been revived and (justifiably) praised while Sapphire from the same team seems to struggle for the same kind of recognition.

  2. extremecloseup

    I saw this film in New Zealand when I was a young boy. I can’t recall the cinema but it may have the B Picture ‘Bug House’ in a small Taranaki town, but memories of it have lingered over many years.

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