Starting in the late 1940’s, and continuing through to the end of the ‘50’s, Hollywood seemed to be obsessed with the concept of “passing” - light skinned black people passing for white. Though it wasn’t new, of course, somehow it caught Tinseltown’s attentionm and a slew of films were made, almost all them dealing with women in particular, who passed for white and the tragedies and sorrow that they encountered.
Elia Kazan’s "Pinky," "Lost Boundaries," "Imitation Of Life," "Band of Angels," "The Night of the Quarter Moon," "I Passed for White," and the would-be "Gone with the Wind" rip-off, "Raintree County, with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, which, technically may not be a "passing" movie, though it deals with a pre-Civil war, antebellum Southern belle (Taylor), who goes slowly insane because she believes her real mother was a slave, who was her father’s lover (turns out that she wasn’t, but Taylor dies anyway for all her grief).
But, for my money, the real doozy of the passing-for-white films wasn’t from Hollywood, but came instead from the U.K.
I’m referring to the 1959 British mystery detective film "Sapphire," directed by Basil Dearden, who specialized, during the late 50′s and 60′s, in films with controversial subject matter, such as his 1961 film "Victim," which dealt with a successful and closeted gay barrister who is being blackmailed, and fights back against his tormentors. It is credited for being the first movie in which the word "homosexual" was actually used in a film.
But "Sapphire" is in another realm altogether.
The premise centers on a police investigation of a young white woman found murdered in a park (the poor victim pictured above). However, the 2 detectives assigned to the case – an older, seen-it-all, live and let live, tolerant one (Nigel Patrick) and his younger, wound-up, racist partner (Michael Craig) – begin to discover some rather strange things about the murder victim.
For example, in her closet and chest drawers, they find what they see as bizarre articles of clothing, such as tight sexy dresses and - God forbid - a RED petticoat! Then there’s her strange collection of jazz and American R & B music. Also the fact that none of her friends seem to know anything about her private life.
Well it turns out that the cops eventually find out that the murder victim was actually a light skinned black woman passing for white (or, as they’re say in the film - a “lilyskin”).
But, of course, that would explain the clothes and the red petticoat, which is *obviously* symbolic, suggesting a sexually promiscuous party girl. Because, no self-respecting white woman would EVER be caught in clothes like that, or even listening to that kind of satanic, heathen music. Only a black woman with her loose moral standards would do those things.
As a result, the two cops must explore London’s dangerous and uncharted black community to find out more about their victim, and ferret out the identity of her killer (which actually, to give the film credit, is a genuine surprise).
The amazing and amusing thing about this film is that, when it came out, it was heralded (and still is by some), as an honest and realistic portrait of black life and racism in the U.K. and even won the British BAFTA Award for Best British Film in 1959.
To see it now, one can’t help but laugh at its outrageous stereotypes and ridiculous situations. Unlike fine wine, there are some things that age very badly indeed.
There are too many scenes to choose from, but my favorite is the scene (which you can see below), when the two cops, following a lead, visit a night club to find out more about their victim. They speak to the club owner who, in effect, tells them that all black people, no matter how light they are, can’t escape their real identity, because of that damn natural rhythm that’s in ALL of us, or the "beat of the bongo" as it's called.
And to prove his point, the camera pans down to the feet of a seemingly white woman, and we see her feet moving and twitching uncontrollably to the music, as if they have a mind of their own. You see it’s "dat’ damn evil nat’rual rhythm" that exposes us every time, no matter how hard we try to hide. Curses!
Of course, the underlining message in the film is that Sapphire, in effect, brought her murder onto herself for living a lie, and not accepting who she really was, and living among her “own kind."
And it goes without saying that, in all of these passing-for-white films, the lead was always played by a white woman for audience sympathy and identification, to heighten the tragedy. In other words, a white audience who watched Susan Kohner in "Imitation of Life," or Yvonne De Carlo in "Band of Angels," can say to themselves, “there for the grace of God, go I! How sad for those poor wretched souls.”
In case you’re wondering where you can see this film, it is available on DVD, but unfortunately as only as past of a multi-DVD set of Dearden’s films on Criterion. But it does show up on Turner Classics Movies cable channel now and then.
But it is worth checking out because, if nothing else, it’s a truly fascinating look into attitudes and the mindset of a particular time, not that long ago.