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Sapphire
United Kingdom 1959
Directed by Basil Dearden
Running time 92 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Made at a time when racial prejudice against West Indian migrants was widespread and virulent in British society (there had been race riots in Notting Hill in 1958), this story of the murder of a "coloured" girl is an engaging whodunit-cum-police procedural in the English manner (including some notably offhand treatment of the evidence and unusually aggressive interrogation techniques by the police) but is primarily of interest for the way in which it explores racial stereotypes and attitudes in both black and white communities at the time.

The well-written script by Janet Green exposes the corrosive effects of racism, the Nigel Patrick character, Superintendent Robert Hazard, as the major focal point of the film offering the voice of reason to the knee-jerk prejudices of his younger assistant (Michael Craig), and by extension to its various manifestations from other characters on both sides of the colour bar who are very ready to accept colour-determinism.

Although the stereotyping looks quite strident by today's standards (notably in the scene in the black nightclub in which it is maintained (by the black owner) that no matter how light their skin colour is, once "they hear the beat of the bongos", the Negro is out, the camera zooming in to the obligingly bounce legs of a light-skinned woman) and the film can be criticised for its small "l" liberalism and general arm's-lenght approach it remains a significantly progressive effort in the post-war era of British film. The team of Dearden and his producer at Ealing Michael Relph, made a number of "social issues" films their most effective being the gay closet-opening Victim in 1961.

 

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