Sapphire April 16, 2021
or a brief period beginning in the late 1950s, English director Basil Dearden and his producing partner, Michael Relph, decided to focus their attention on several projects through which they could explore social issues often left underexamined in British cinema. The “first” in this unofficial series was Sapphire (1959), an engaging thriller that for the most part savvily uses a murder mystery as a device to probe race
relations in London. The first thing we see in the movie is a young, red-headed woman’s dead body being tossed on a pile of leaves on Hampstead Heath. We learn the following morning that she is a pregnant 21-year-old college student named Sapphire Robbins (Yvonne Buckingham), engaged to be married to well-to-do architecture student David Harris (Paul Massie). Given the stretch of stab wounds marking her torso, police superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick) surmises that Sapphire was killed in hate, not fear. Someone fearful, he reasons, would have left a wound or two before nervously fleeing the scene.
Hazard’s hunch is obliquely confirmed when Sapphire’s older brother, a Birmingham-based doctor (Earl Cameron), walks into police headquarters. A dark-skinned Black man, Dr. Robbins says that ever since his sister came to London, she’s learned to pass for white. (Their father was white, their mother Black.) One quickly suspects David of the crime. He’d just gotten a scholarship — was he nervous about losing the opportunity? Additional red herrings spring up. Anyone in David’s family is suspicious: their notional progressivism is devoid of conviction; they’re concerningly rigid about not relaying when exactly they found out Sapphire was Black. (They seem eager to clean themselves of her, too: “Sapphire is nothing to us and she never was,” David’s older sister Milly, played by Yvonne Mitchell, matter-of-factly tells her twin daughters, who still refer to Sapphire as “auntie.”) Maybe it was one of the two white landladies who erupt upon reliving the moment they discovered Sapphire’s identity. Or maybe it was someone from Sapphire’s past, disgruntled about her abrupt departure from their lives. (She used to hang out, police discover, in predominantly Black neighborhoods before being certain she could pass for white; as one old friend puts it, “Sapphire stopped seeing me — I’m rather distinctive.”)
As expected for a movie examining racism written by a white woman (playwright Janet Green) and directed by a white man, missteps are inextricable from any periodic perceptiveness. Sapphire makes a point to interrogate the subtler racism espoused by white people who would consider themselves forward-looking. A joke is made out of the white liberal tendency to mollify meaningful conversation by remarking that “we are all God’s children,” for example; when she died, Sapphire was wearing a pink taffeta skirt under her tweed one, and when a white character (the inspector assisting Hazard, played by Michael Craig) remarks that this was her Blackness peeking out from under the whiteness represented by the tweed, he’s criticized.
But the film falters in its refusal to treat any of its Black characters as anything other than symbolic; it prefers to suggest racism is exclusively an individual failing and not something with deep-seated institutional support. The police are predictably regarded as a force for good rather than a long-standing tool to perpetuate white supremacy. The Craig character is meant to be a casually bigoted figure to italicize how comparatively compassionate and enlightened Hazard is; Hazard suggests where society should be, with Craig an embodiment of backward-looking conservatism. But when Craig repeatedly lets his prejudices known — usually through micro-aggression — they’re marked with tsktsks. Complicity in Sapphire is rendered no differently than more innocuous forms of workplace toleration. The movie doesn’t grapple with what Craig's excused racism says not just about this specific police force but policing in general. What else might be forgiven? And wouldn’t these attitudes manifest themselves dangerously? The case is inexorably closed at the end of Sapphire.
“We didn’t solve anything,” Hazard climatically says. “We just picked up the pieces.” The line has a mic drop's gusto; “The End” overtakes the screen a moment later. But one still wants to ask about those pieces over there. B