The Hyde Park Picture House’s ‘On The Road’ programme has restarted this month, with daily screenings at the City Varieties attracting film audiences back to see films on the big screen.
However, as it’s still too soon for some people to return to cinemas, this weekend the Hyde Park Picture House team selected a film that can be watched at home as a #HydeParkPick and are sharing it as a way to mark this year’s Black History Month.
Sapphire is a British drama directed by Basil Dearden in 1959, it’s a fascinating film that reveals much about levels of prejudice in multi-cultural London just as it was on the cusp of a more permissive 1960s.
We’re presenting this choice with an exclusive new essay written for us by author and film scholar Josiah Howard.
Josiah is a specialist in film and cultural studies who has written four books, including Blaxploitation Cinema: The essential reference guide in 2008. He is a senior contributor at Furious Cinema and his writing credits include articles for The American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Reader’s Digest.
The 1959 release in Britain of Basil Dearden’s Sapphire and the same year’s release of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life in America, marked the cinema’s return to the controversial topic of black people passing for white—be they British or American. Subterfuge, “misrepresentation” and the fluid nature or racial identity made good copy: it reinforced the notion that you can’t trust anyone and that things were often not what they seemed.
Released in a world devoid of the internet, cell-phones, home video and digital entertainment, cinematic depictions of passing had a proven and lucrative pedigree: they were titillating, headline-grabbing attractions that appealed to the prurient; the curious visitor who wanted to know about the netherworld but also wanted to remain at a safe and respectable distance.
Elia Kazan’s Pinky and Alfred L. Werker’s Lost Boundaries (both 1949), George Sidney’s Showboat (1951; made three times over the years), and Fred M. Wilcox’s I Passed for White (1960) captivated audiences and did what film studios and distributors wanted: they made money—Pinky even garnered three Academy Award nominations.
Sapphire, under referenced and generally underseen remains a watershed: a bold, audacious, modern tale (itself occasionally insensitive and racist) that dealt with the challenges of immigration, class, culture, the youth generation, identity, and the power of costume, charade, sexual attraction and fetishism. That was a large plate for prolific director Basil Dearden, best-known for his fast-moving procedurals, but he and everyone else involved delivered the salacious goods in fine fashion.
A beautiful conservatively dressed, white girl (whose lacy undergarments are deemed incongruous and “flashy”) is found stabbed to death in a park. But is she white? And what does “white” mean? That’s the essential question that Sapphire explores and it’s a compelling one, especially as Britain’s racial discomfiture was, for the most part, generally unfamiliar outside of Europe. America was the place where there was racial strife and division that was firmly on record. The long-established history of slavery, segregation and, of course, the Civil War were part of America’s dark past: a stark truth that everyone could point to.