Cast & Crew
A "light-skinned" black co-ed has a penchant for passing as white and hanging at London's bars at night. When she is found murdered, a number of suspects are considered, including the naive white architect student who fell in love with her,never suspecting she was black.
John D. Guthridge
W. T. Partleton
Earl St. John
True to its genre as a social problem film, Sapphire distinguishes itself from other whodunit formulas of its time by openly broadcasting political debates about the color line. Characters - both white and black - when asked about Sapphire's murder argue about whether "you can always tell" that a person is "colored". Some white characters, like bombastically bigoted Inspector Phil Learoyd (Michael Craig), insist that color is identifiable by racially inherent traits. Yet others, like his foil, Superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick), emphasize common humanity and argue that color has no correlation to particular behaviors or preferences. Even still, the black owner of jazzy Tulips club says that when the bongo-drums start beating, "No matter how fair the skin, they can't hide that swing." For white and black characters alike, Sapphire's mixed-race is seen as duplicitous - and, for the film, it serves to expose midcentury British anxieties about racial purity, miscegenation and national identity.
Dearden's candid portrayal of English prejudice is comprehensive, but it may condone what it seeks to critique. Sapphire makes efforts to display the diverse texture of black British life - Sapphire's brother, Dr. Robbins (Earl Cameron), is a doctor; her former fling, dandy Paul Slade (Gordon Heath), is the son of a Bishop; and tertiary black characters are gangsters, playful children and ambitious students. Yet, the film is largely told from the point of view of Superintendent Hazard who does little to challenge the film's "tragic mulatta" stereotyping of Sapphire. A mainstay in cinema, this stock character is a beautiful, sexually attractive mixed-race woman who is caught between white and black worlds. As she passes as white, she attracts white men, but her hidden blackness eventually leads to her tragic demise. Sapphire's clothing symbolizes the tragic mulatta's racial and moral duality; underneath her tweed was a racy red taffeta. Inspector Learoyd remarks that it is, "the black under the white." Moreover, it turns out that Sapphire was also pregnant - and it is unclear whether the father is her white boyfriend, David Harris (Paul Massie), or one of her black dancing partners from the jazz clubs she frequented. While the film offers a satisfying resolution to the murder's mystery, it's telling that Superintendent Hazard's last lines are: "We didn't solve anything."
Sapphire won the BAFTA Award for Best Film and its screenwriter, Janet Green, won a 1960 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of American for Best Foreign Film Screenplay, but it was still criticized for its political impartiality. Nina Hibbin for The Daily Worker wrote: "You can't find the colour bar by telling people it exists. You have to attack it, with passion and conviction...Otherwise you're in danger of fanning the flames." Nevertheless, Sapphire's style and themes have had a lasting impact on British filmmaking. For instance, Black British filmmaker Isaac Julien seems to refocus Sapphire in his first narrative feature film, Young Soul Rebels (1991). It likewise opens with a murder in a public park - but of a young, black, gay man. And rather than focusing on the white policemen who are charged to investigate the murder, the film is told from the point of view of the black British community impacted by the incident's racism and homophobia.
Sapphire was shot in 35 mm, in color, and produced - like many of Dearden's social problem films - by Michael Relph.
By Rebecca Kumar
1959 British Academy Award Winner for Best British Film.
Released in England April 21, 1959