How has race been constructed in Sapphire?


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How has race been constructed in Sapphire?

  2. 2. RACE CONSTRUCTED IN OR OF YOUR CHOICE?INTRQDPCTIQNThe film that 1 have chosen to look at is "Sapphire" a film made in 1959 and directed by BasilDearden. a director well known for his social problem films. This film was made at aninteresting time, or rather the subject matter was interesting and the film was made duringturbulent times,especially in respect to race relations. / "By the mid - 1950s, more blatant and violent forms of racial hostility directed at a Black-British presence emerged. These included: the White riots in Camden (London, 1954), Nottingham and North Kensington (or what was generally referred to as Netting Hill) (London. 1958) in which racists attached immigrant groups... the general abuse of Black workers, particularly by Teddy Boys...fed into new moral panics around teen hooligans and troubled youth {rather than about British racism); and the first acknowledged racially motivated murder (that of Kelso Cochrane, a Black carpenter in Netting Hill (May 1959)." (Malik 2002:13),From looking at the quotation above 1 dont feel that it was a coincidence that Sapphire wasreleased in 1959 after the race riots. The subject matter of the film is that of a murderinvestigation. A young girl named Sapphire has been murdered and it is up to theinvestigators. Superintendent Bob Hazard and Detective Inspector Phil Leoroyd to find thekiller. Problems begin to arise in their investigation when they find that Sapphire whophysically appears to be white is "revealed to have been a half-caste and the implications ofthis revelation structure the whole direction of the inquiry." (Hill 1986:84). Furtherinvestigation leads them to a "discovery of racism in lower middle classes as a possible-motive for the killing." (Bourne 1998:224), The World Book Dictionary explains a construct as " an idea or theory resultingfrom a synthesis of impressions, learned facts, or study..." What we find in Sapphire is that race tends to less be constructed through learned facts or study but rather a synthesis ofimpressions. It is through the police investigation and the clues that Hazard and Leoroyd findand also the people that they come across that we are able to see how race is constructed mthe film, I plan to go through the film and point out the different ways that we see race being
  3. 3. construct of presented, and I shall back my finding up with the reading that I have done.When I speak of the construction of race to some this may be hard to understand:for in factthere is only one race and that is the human race. So rather I would like to present in thisessay how blackness is constructed in the film Sapphire. Also if wordtpermit I may touchon and try to see if whiteness is being constructed in any way.How.HAS RACE..BEEN CONSTRUCTED INSAPPHIRE? When the audience first see Sapphire she is dead a body lying in the darkShere isnothing to tell us that the young girl is not white, she has no physical attribute of blackness.And Throughout the film we find that many views of blackness are not constructed throughknown facts or things that you can see but through stereotypes, essentialism and hearsay.Stuart Hail writes "...we know that stereotyped" means reduced to a few essentials, fixed inNature by a few simplified characteristics" (Hail in Hall 1997:249). .And this is exactly whatoccurs in Sapphire blacks recognised as being black through "simplified characteristics. Sapphires name alone reflects ways in which black women are constructedthroughout the film. "The name "Sapphire in North American culture is one given to African-American women who are characterized as being loud, obstinate, domineering, emasculatingand generally immoral (Ferguson 1973:590}" (Young 1996:97). There is an obsession withsexuality and the exotic in the film, and it is Sapphires sexuality and her colour that leads herto her death. Hall references Bogle m his essay The Spectacle of the Other" Bogle writes: "The Tragic Mulatto - the mixed-race woman, cruelly caught between a divided racial inheritance, beautiful, sexually attractive and often exotic, the prototype of the smouldering sexy heroine, whose partly white blood makes her acceptable", even attractive to white men, but whose indelible "stain of black blood condemns her to a tragic conclusion." (BogleinHal! 1997:251).Tliis is a perfect description of Sapphire her tragic end being she is murdered. But this canmore been seen as a punishment, seen frequently in British social problem films somethingalways happens to a black character, whether it occurs that they die or get hurt badly. InFlame in the Streets (Roy Baker 1961) Gabriel Gomez ends up being pushed on a bonfire on
  4. 4. Guy Fawkes Night. Sapphire is punished for "passing" for white arid also for being sexuallyattractive to the opposite sex. " "The texts often involve narratives constructed in such a way that if such interdictions are broken and the boundaries of racial propriety transgressed, then the perpetrators are "punished" or threaten with punishment. Thus the racially ambiguous Sapphire is murdered alter consummating her relationship with her white fiance..." (Young 1996:91).Sapphires sexuality is first referred to when Hazard and Leoroyd go to her room in the houseshe was residing in before she was murdered. Hazard comes across a locked draw, when heopens it he finds colourful clothes, sexy undergarments and high-heeled shoes. "Her lockeddrawer delivers up a flurry of exotic underwear (accompanied by a strident musical chord!)"(Tarr in Screen 26/1). This particular musical chord is one played frequently throughout thefilm a sexy, smouldering piece of music which links Sapphire with people and places, " isprecisely the effect of the film to expand the connotations of colour to the colour" of themusic and dancing, sexuality and violence (and hence ????? the fetishitic fascination of thedetective for Sapphires clothing with its suggestion of "exotic" sexuality)" (Hill in Screen26/1) Its Sapphires clothing that seta up the enigma, and in the end solves who she was andwho her murdered was. When Hazard opened up the locked drawer there was shock on thelandladys face when she leaves the room Hazard remarks, "Clearly there was a side toSapphire she (land lady) didnt know about" this statement is true in more ways than one. In another scene involving Sapphires clothing or, to be more specific a red taffetapetticoat, after Hazard and Leoroyd are made aware that Sapphire is half-caste" we see how"black sexuality - now becomes a dominant not. to say disturbing, preoccupation" (Hill1986:83). The petticoat and its part-black owner lead the audience to ideas of blackpromiscuity, "At the level of dialogue, the film seeks to disclaim such an interpretation. Reflecting on the meaning of the "red taffeta under a tweed skirt, Leoroyd offers the explanation thats the black under the white alright." Hazard tells him to come off it; but what we see, rather than what we are told, seems to support Leoroyd rather than Hazard." {Hill 1986:85).
  5. 5. We can see that through. Hazard and Leoroyds investigations Sapphire is living up to herAfrican-American originated name. We can also see how "blackness" is being constructedalong with the "construction of whiteness in the character Sapphire. When she was found shewas wearing a brown tweed skirt, blouse, jacket and tights. In these clothes she is presented tothe audience as a respectable young lady and assumed to be white. What she wearsunderneath leads Hazard and Leoroyd to find out otherwise. Red taffeta. and exoticunderwear in a locked drawer, things that Sapphire wanted to keep secret, presented in thisway blackness is constructed through sexuality and seen as something that Sapphire wasashamed of. Sapphires "association with sexual promiscuity is defined by her relationshipsand activities that situate her in the world of blackness." (Landy 1991:477). When the twodetectives find out that Sapphire is pregnant. Hazard assumes that the father is David Harris(Sapphires fiance) bat now that they know Sapphire is "half-caste Leoroyd remarks "I dontknow you cant be sure now. it could be anybody." The paternity of Sapphires unborn child isonly questioned because she is "coloured. Another way that we find blackness being constructed is through music. "The filmlinks card plating and music and dancing to the blacks, the blacks to sexuality, and sexualityto violence." (Landy 1991:477). When Hazard and Leoroyd find the clothes in the lockeddrawer in Sapphires room they also find a half torn photograph, they soon find out that it wastaken in Tulips a club that Sapphire frequented and where she would "dance crazy with blackmen. Mr Tulip who owns the Tulip club refers to Sapphire as a lily-white, a "lily-whitebeing a woman who is part black but can "pass" for white. In the Tulip club there are manylily-whites and you can see on Hazard and Leoroyds faces that they find t hard not to lookat the women who are in a sense to them forbidden fruit. Mr Tulip remarks "lily- whites... youcan always tell cause once they hear the beat of the bongos...they cant hide that swing."This is an essentialist sentiment "the film endorses an ideology of blacks as naturally morevital, more rhythmic and more sexual." The film "confine(s) its blacks, as essentiallydifferent (rhythmic, sexual) and determined by nature." (Hill 1986:88). So basically becausethese women "lily-whites have black blood, in them they are able to dance and cant help
  6. 6. themselves dancing to the music. So here I feel as well as the essentialism, blacks are beingrepresented, as having no restraint, they are out of control so does that mean that whites are incontrol?Charles Husband writes: "Colour then became the means of distinguishing groups of people, and of identifying the behaviour to be expected of them. "Race provided the theory which accounted for the consistency between sign of category membership colour: and the characteristic behaviour of members of the category." (Husband 1982:13).The mention of bongos refers to Africa where the instrument originated from, raid also it canrefer to the jungle. The jungle is something that black people were frequently associated with.Some blacks were referred to as monkeys and were asked where their tails were. In one scenein Sapphire a black man describes one such humiliation. A past friend of Sapphires whoknew her before she began to pass for white told Hazard and Leoroyd that when he andSapphire were at a coffee shop he went to the counter to pay and a white woman came up toSapphire "thinking that she and her were the same" and remarked "Oh I see theyve let thejungle in ". This shows that black people are some how representative of the jungle, savageand untamed. Music is also referred to in passing when Leoroyd asks the landlady about thegramophone in Sapphires room; the landlady says that Sapphire played it vary softly. Whenthey question Sapphires previous landlady without being asked about a gramophone sheremarks that Sapphire was "noisy with her gramophone". Here we see different views ofSapphire, before she began passing for white she was loud, "eager to please, laughed toomuch" (landlady). When she was passing for white "she wanted so much to be counted in tobelong"5. Sapphires previous landlady said that she knew Sapphire was black, just as Leoroydhad said that he "can always tell; Below are two scenes from the film, the first is where thelandlady says that she knew Sapphire was black, arid in second in a doctors office whereLeoroyd says that he can tell when someone is black, (this is the doctor who told Sapphirethat she was pregnant).
  7. 7. Landlady: "Nice enough girl considering she was coloured."Leoroyd: "Oil, you knew then?"Landlady: "I guessed you can always tell too eager to please laughed too much, noisy with her gramophone but I never minded as long as they dont look it."Leoroyd; "Did she tell you she was coloured?"Doctor: "No she didnt mention it."Leoroyd: "No, I bet she didnt, but you can always tell cant you?"Doctor: "No Inspector as a matter of fact you cant."Leoroyd: "What! Oh I can tell em a, mile away."These two conversations are totally absurd and a far cry from when "Black people werereduced to the sigmfiers of their physical difference, thick lips, fuzzy hair, broad face andnose..." (Hall 1997:249). But at least these are physical attributes that you can see. If it wasthe case that Leoroyd could always tell" why was he shocked Sapphires brother, a blackman exited Hazards office? As I said before the way blackness" is constructed in this film is mainly through asynopsis of peoples ideas, nothing based on real facts. How could the landlady guess thatSapphire was coloured" if she knew the real meaning of the word guess she would not haveused it at all guess: to form an opinion of without really blowing so really the landladyknew nothing. "Both Leoroyd and the landlady lay claim to knowledge which cannot bereliably verified by visual signification but in case visual evidence fails there are a number ofways of fixing someones racial ancestry..." (Young 1996:48). A much similar conversationoccurred in Hazards office when he and Leoroyd had finished questioning David Harris(Sapphires fiance) Leoroyd remarked "The boy looks truthful to me" how could someonelook truthful? Its just as unintelligent as guessing" someone is coloured. Apart from thisfilm bringing a. synopsis of stereotypes and prejudices to the British audience I feel that it hasworryingly brought it bad opinion of the police force through the character of Leoroyd, The black men in the film present the audience with the different types of black menthat thev themselves mav come across. "Dr. Robbins is exemplary of the educated black man, the professional who is respectable, polite and deeply identified with the aims of the law. He contrasts
  8. 8. sharply with the arrogant Paul Slade, a former dancing partner of Sapphires who expresses his contempt with the violent and illegal activity of the black community." (Landy 1991:476),Through Dr. Robbins, Sapphires brother we find the respectable black man: he has comeacross racism, but has decided to come to terms with the fact that for him thats the way theworld is. Dr. Robbins encompasses his own contradiction: he feels that nothing good canhappen for black people, which is why he is doubtful that the police will find his sisterskiller. But he him self is a doctor; I consider this a great achievement for a black man in the1950s/60s. We then come across Paul Slade a pompous black man with an expensiveeducation, which he feels give liim the right to look down on both blacks and whites."Moreover, as Slade makes quite clear, racial prejudice works both ways. His father wouldnot have allowed him to marry Sapphire because she was part white." (Hill 1986:84). The-violent and illegal activity of the black community is presented through Horace Big Cigar" ablack man who was stabbed by Johnny Fiddle, a past dancing partner of Sapphires who isnow in police custody as they suspect Mm of her murder., When Leoroyd goes to Horaceshome to talk to him there are quite a few7 other black men there, playing cards and talking.When Horace realises that Leoroyd is the police he says to the men "No ignorant foolish talkman". The men are presented as clowns with a ring leader all of them are dark skinned, theroom is dimly lit so the only thing that stands out is Leoroyd the only white man in the roomand the black mens bright shirts and. also their white teeth. Every time Horace laughs theylaugh with him whether what he said was funny or not as if they had no minds of their own. Johnny Fiddle is made to look ignorant; when Hazard and Leoroyd are questioninghim he only answers "yes boss" or "no boss". He doesnt speak with properly constructedsentences; this makes him sound like a slave talking to bis white slave master. In Horace BigCigar and Johnny Fiddle we find the opposite of Dr. Robbins and Paul Slade. The black and the whit community dont seem to be that divided. When I say this Imean that although there were parts of the film were you could see that there were just whitepeople living in a. certain area, for example where the Harriss live. There wasnt anywhere
  9. 9. where there were just black people, when Hazard and Leoroyd were searching throughJohnny Fiddles room the audience were able to see the difference between where he livedand where Sapphire lived. Although it was more run down than were Sapphire lived, blacksthere did not dominate the area that he was rooming in were whites there too. There wereeven black and white children playing together outside, race doesnt seem to be a problem tothem. A similar scene to this is shown several time in-the Flame in the Streets, childrenplaying together without a care in the world. Below is a conversation Hazard and Leoroydhave on the way back from where Johnny Fiddle lives.Leoroyd: "These spades are a load of trouble 1 reckon we should send them back where they came from,, we wouldnt have half this bother if they werent here."Hazard: ".. .just the same as you wouldnt have old ladies being clobbered by hooligans if there werent any old ladies, so what do you do get rid of the hooligan or the the people the bash..."I find this conversation interesting because of the time in the film when if occurred. As Imentioned before there is no clear division between black and whit communities. There arewhite communities but no black communities present; instead we find black and whitetogether. So is it the case that blacks were welcomed to the community or are they causingtrouble just by their presence there? At the end of the film we find out that Mildred. Davids sister was the person whomurdered Sapphire. Hazard invites Dr. Robbins to the Harriss home -which they are notpleased about) so that he can tell everyone together who the killer is. When Hazard begins totalk he is holding a doll which belongs to Mildreds children, the doll is white and hecasually hands it to Dr. Robbins whilst speaking. I have watched this film over and over againand have questioned the meaning, "...from the early part of the twentieth century to the1060s... (there was a) perceived threat of black infiltration of the self-contained pure whitefamily..." (Young 1996:84-85). Sapphire represented this threat to Mildred, which is why shefelt the need to kill her and also why when Dr. Robbins was holding the white doll she went
  10. 10. in to hysterics and shouted "Get him out...dont want him near my kids, dont want his dirtyhands on my children, tearing up my family, their mine." "Concern about the criminal behaviour of black settlers in the late 1940s and 1950s assumed a different form, clustering around a distinct range of anxieties and images in which issues of sexuality and miscegenation were often uppermost." (Gilroy 1992:79).Unfortunately this is what we find in Sapphire" the representation of black people isprimarily constructed through sexuality and also stereotypes. Sapphires clothes the onefoundin the locked draw,lead the detectives to The Tulips Club, and also a lingerie shop calledBabettes. At the Tulips Club sexuality is referenced to not only verbally but also through themovement 0.1. tiie camera. "Cutting between the lily skin dancer, her partner. Johnny Hot feet, a black woman dancer. Johnny Fingers, the white woman behind the men and the bongos, the sequence concludes with direct inter-cutting between low-angle shots of the lilv skins" pants and thighs, revealed below twirling skirts and close-ups of the bongos.,,it makes a decent into music and dancing, once again associated with sexuality, with the low angle shots below the girls skirt referring back to Sapphires red taffeta underskirt." (Hill 1986:86-87).And it was the "red taffeta underskirt that led the police to Babettes and in turn gave themclues about Sapphires past and the men in her past, constructing her as promiscuous. Its usually the black men that are seen as a threat to the white family but inSapphire we find the threat is a half-caste woman. "...the monitoring of the sexual activity of black men has been a consistent political manifestation of the tension engendered by the reaction of white Britain to the presence of black people in their midst. This preoccupation contained within it expressions of fears for the purity and superiority of the white race" which, as thev relate to terms such as miscegenation and race-mixing are evocative of earlier scientific racist discourses," (Young 1996:87).Tins is the problem Sapphire posed, to Mildred; Sapphire was going to make her familyUTiplIFv, There is also a construction of black women within the film, this is presented throughthe lack of black women characters, and if there is a lack of something it shows thai thev are
  11. 11. not important. There are only two speaking black women characters, one a nurse who knewSapphire before she began to "pass for white, and the other who knew Sapphire just as shebegan to pass for white. When the nurse was asked why she stopped speaking to Sapphireshe explained that it was Sapphire who stopped speaking to her, she says. "Im verydistinctive you know" here she is referring to the colour of her skin. The other woman says ofSapphire "I hated, that high yellow doll." She didnt like her because Sapphire took herboyfriend from her Paul Slade. and the fact that she refers to Sapphire as high yellow dolFshows some resentment on her part.. Resentment that Sapphire is light skinned, and calling her"doll shows that Sapphire was also pretty maybe prettier than her. The lack of black womenin the film and also the things that they say show that black women dont hold as muchinterest as "lily skins. The fact that Sapphire was half-caste made her more C7iotic andforbidden to white men for her blackness and forbidden to black men for her whiteness,but the forbidden is always that much more intriguing.WHAT HAS SAPPHIRE TAUGHT Us?The last line in the film is spoken by Hazard he says, "We didnt solve anything Phil.(Leoroyd) we just picked up the pieces." In this film Hazard and Leoroyd may have picked upthe pieces but it is left to the audience to pat those pieces together. " Sapphire...was voted the Beast British Film" of 1959 by the British Film Academy. What appeared to distinguish such films, and win them critical reward (such as the BFA award) was their apparent determination not just to provide mere entertainment, but to confront "real situations and important" social issues and, in so doing to make a positive contribution to the "good of society." (Hill 1986:68).The problem with this film is that it was about white people for white people. All of theirfears about black people; all of their stereotypical ideas about black people are presentedthrough this film. "The themes and preoccupations of the racial problem. films of the fiftiesand sixties made by White film-makers in Britain articulate some of those fears aboutInterracial relations and Black peoples presence here." (Young in Screen Vol 12/1 1991:?).There is no presentation of how black people feel living in England everything is presentedfrom a white perspective. II
  12. 12. When Leoroyd says that the spades should go back to where they came from thefilm doesnt educate the audience with the fact that black people have been in England along ••- -:time "...we can trace the presence of Black people in Britain back to the sixteenth century(Fryer 1984 in Malik 2002:12). In spite of this film being a detective film it solves noproblems if only presents them. The audience are given no help to work things out, as a mediastudent I have been educated to look at the media in a certain way to read between the lines.An audience watching this film in 1959,1 feel would not have been able to do this. Sapphire""Meant as an objective exposure, it is perilously near to becoming a justification... the methodused is trying to put out fire with petrol." (Nina Hibbin in Bourne 1998:255). The only time inthe film when we see any type of resolution is in the doctors office. When Leoroyd says thathe can tell a coloured from a mile away, the doctor remarks, just as you can tell apoliceman from the size of his feet. He says this to make what Leoroyd said soundpreposterous. I feel that instead of solving anything Sapphire would have left a 1959/50s audiencewondering if what was presented to them was true. Or they may have been a few that wouldhave looked at the film critically and seen it as what it originally set out to "to show this(colour) prejudice as the stupid and illogical thing it is." (Kine Weekly December 25th 3958p!5. in Tarr in Screen Vol 26/1 ????:54). In this essay I have tried to present the different ways that blackness is constructed,the original essay question was to present how "race is constructed, and here lies theproblem. What is ones definition of race? The World Book Dictionary defines "race5 as: "Any one of the major divisions of mankind, each having distinctive physical characteristics and a common ancestry;1The definition also includes a quotation by Beals and Hoijer unfortunately the dictionary doesnot reference it, but 1 find it very interesting. "The whole concept of race, as it is traditionally defined, may be profoundly modified or even dropped altogether, once the genetic approach has been fully exploited."
  13. 13. To me there is only one "race" that is the human race, and that seems to be what Beals andHolier are trying to explain, that, these major divisions of mankind" will be profoundlymodified and people will see that there is in fact only one race. When we start to think ofdivisions of mankind5 and different races we find it necessary to start describing things andnoticing differences. This is when stereotypes are produced, people find it necessary tocharacterize a group of people, a group of human beings. "Stereotypes are social constructs designed to socially construct. They do not simply come into being from nothing and they are not used in the same way by everyone. The way in which we apply stereotypes in cultural production is as revealing as which stereotypes we select to represent, so the question of who has the power to Yield and circulate stereotypes in cultural production is an important one." (Malik 2002:29). So what of the construction of whiteness? "Trying to think about the representationof whiteness as an ethnic category in mainstream film is difficult, partly because white powersecures its dominance by seeming not to be anything, in particular." (Dyer in Screen Vol 29/41988:44). Mute is not constructed in most films, its just there, its been made to seem normaland anything else is other to it, "The colourless multi-colouredness of whiteness secures white power by making it hard, especially for white people and their media, to see whiteness. This, of course, also makes it hard to analyse. It is the way that black people are marked as black (are not just people") in representation that has made it relatively easy to analyse their representation, whereas white people - not there as a category and everywhere everything as a fact - are difficult if not impossible, to analyse qua white." (Dyer in Screen Vol 29/4 1988:46). So what has Sapphire taught us1? Its taught us that people feel the need to put othersinto categories, and what we fine! in Sapphire" is the divisions between black and white andalso the sub-divisions within the black category but not the sub-division within the whitecategory. If youre black youre recognised as being so by acting a certain way or taking partin certain activities. But what we need to ask ourselves is. is it necessary to put people inboxes? It is good to recognise difference but not if it leads to prejudice, stereotypes are alwaysgoing to be around and some can even be humorous, but when stereotypes are produced asbeing fact this can be dangerous. 13
  14. 14. "Until the colour of a mans skin is of QO more significance than the colour of hiseyes, there will be no peace." (Haile Selassie I, 1964). (David Bygott 1992:60). 14
  15. 15. Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame, Cassell, 1998,David Bygott, and Oxford University Press, 1992, Dyer, White, inPaul Gilroy, There aint no Black in the Union Jack, Routledge, 1992,Stuart Hall, The Spectacle of the Other", in Stuart Hall (ed) Cultural , Sage, 1997.John Hill, Publishing, 1986,John Hill, The British Socail Problem Film: Violent Playground andSapphire, in_ScreenVgl 26/1 1 985.Charles Husband, BlceJn_Brita|ti» Hutchinson & Co, 1982,Marcia Landy, British Genres, Princeton Univetsity Press, 1991 ,Sarita Malik, Black Britain, Sage Publications, 2002.Carrie Tarr, Sapphire, Darling and the Boundaries of Permitted Pleasure,.inLola Young, Fear_o£the^ Pa r k, Routledge, 1996,Lola Young, Representation and British Racial Problem Films, In Women;a cultural review Voi2/l 1991. . C- , •c 15