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.
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.
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.