Sapphire (1959) for #BlackHistoryMonth

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.

Poster for Sapphire with the tagline "The sensational story of a girl who didn't belong"

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.

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Sid & Nancy UK 1986

Saturday 3rd September at 6pm

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Love Kills – Celebrating the 30th anniversary of Sid & Nancy

 As everyone knows, the ingredients for a perfect love story always follow certain rules – sex, drugs, murder, heroin overdoses.

Welcome to love – Alex Cox style.

Sid & Nancy: Love Kills, Cox’s seminal and gritty retelling of the doomed love affair of Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his American groupie-turned-girlfriend Nancy Spungen, turns 30 this year.

Yet it’s lost none of its edginess and vitality, in part largely due to the charismatic turns of its protagonists: Gary Oldman, in his first major film role, and Chloe Webb.

This is not a bio-pic in the conventional sense of the term – Cox isn’t interested in the childhood or peaks and troughs of his characters’ lives: this is a portrayal of the destruction of two people, infatuated with each other and with heroin, and their inevitable and nihilistic end. That destruction permeated into the making of the film: Oldman lost so much weight to play the emaciated punk icon he ended up in hospital.

Throw in an appearance by Courtney Love as a junkie (Love originally auditioned for Nancy – how prophetic would that have been in her later unstable relationship with Kurt Cobain!?), music by Joe Strummer and The Pogues – and, bizarrely, rumours that all five original members of Guns N’ Roses appeared as extras, long before they even met to form a band! – and you have the making of a great rock n’ roll opera that pulls no punches.

Interestingly, if anyone’s interested in checking out the copious amount of research Cox did in preparation for this film, his two huge notebooks can be viewed at the Bradford Media Museum!