The 1959 film Sapphire, directed by Basil Dearden is a British crime drama is about Scotland Yard’s investigations into the mysterious murder on Hampstead Heath of a white woman student who in fact is of mixed race and ‘passing for white’.
After Sapphire’s murdered body is found, her brother (played by Earl Cameron, who would appear two years later in another English film dealing with racial issues, Flame in the Streets) arrives at the police station to give evidence: he is black. Police examine the murdered girl’s clothing: respectable outer garments, racy red underwear. ‘There’s the black under the white’, remarks racist copper Michael Craig.
Focusing on racism in London toward immigrants from the West Indies, the film is set against the background of the anti-immigration Notting Hill riots of the previous year. Its wider racial significance has been explored by Lola Young in her 1996 book Fear of the Dark. The film went on to receive the BAFTA Award for Best Film and screenwriter Janet Green won a 1960 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Foreign Film Screenplay.
Dearden and Relph were Ealing’s most prolific film-makers, their most important work from the late 1940s to the early 1960s being a series of social-problem films dealing with such issues as rapprochement with Germans (Frieda, 1947), law and order (The Blue Lamp), the criminal justice system (I Believe in You), disaffected youth (Violent Playground), race (Sapphire, 1959), homosexuality (Victim, 1961), and religious tolerance (Life for Ruth, 1962). Although regarded as a progressive movie for its day, Dearden’s biographer, Alan Burton, reports that film critics found his approach evaded the complexity of the social issues under consideration. Also, critics have argued that the film’s suppression of authentic West Indian accents acts against a sense of reality: many of the black actors lacked experience in film work and were saddled with unsuitable dialogue.