I watched some films from the 20th century. Arranged chronologically, they show an increase in representation of minorities; however the most recent one was made 40 years ago.
Borderline (1930) starts with a brief glimpse of a train rushing through countryside.
We get an abbreviated cast list, which includes “Helga Doorn” who was actually Hilda Doolittle, the modernist writer who published under the name “H.D.”. It also includes Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda. They are one of a number of outsider couples staying around a bar in a small Swiss town.
The action begins with Astrid distressed at Thorne’s violence in the other room directed at Adah. She frantically calls to her friend the bar manager.
The bar is a pretty jolly place, with all the younger persons dancing madly to jazz piano, played by a young white guy in a suit who likes to get up and bop about himself.
Thorne is quite angry – he’s been having an affair with Adah, with the knowledge of Astrid. But now he has realised that she is mixed-race and this sets him brooding with anger. Meanwhile Adah returns to her husband Pete.
The bar is run by some queer characters who don’t mind the idea of inter-racial relationships, but we find out most of the clientele are quite prejudiced. Ultimately the town council will send a letter demanding Pete gets out of the locale.
A fight between Thorne and Astrid ends in her death, but suspicion falls on the non-white male instead. But Pete does get to knock out one of the bigots in the bar.
There is in the end a scene of reconciliation between the 2 men at the centre.
Robeson was the only professional performer in this production, but everyone else had plenty of opinions about films as they worked together on the journal Close Up at the time, as described in an extra documentary on the BFI restoration disc.
Sapphire (1959) starts its eponymous central victim being dumped on Hampstead Heath, the only time we see her. Soon the case is being investigated by Chief Inspector Hazard and Police Inspector Learoyd.
They soon meet up with young David Harris, the architecture student who was her boyfriend. He was going to marry her, and knew she was pregnant, as revealed in the autopsy.
When Sapphire’s brother, Dr Robbins, comes down from Birmingham, Hazard has a surprise.
Learoyd starts revealing his prejudices once he hears about this new dimension to the case. There is an example when they visit the doctor who told Sapphire she was pregnant. One of several occasions when we have it demonstrated that not all white people (including Hazard, the film’s moral guardian) share his attitudes.
INSPECTOR LEAROYD: Did she tell you she was coloured?
DOCTOR BURGESS: No, she didn’t mention it.
INSPECTOR LEAROYD: No, I bet she didn’t… but you can always tell, can’t you?
DOCTOR BURGESS [curtly]: No Inspector, as a matter of fact you can’t.
Travelling around London we see it still has a fair bit of war damage. The decent quality boarding houses won’t accept “coloured” clients, and Sapphire’s old landlady isn’t pleased to find out the truth of who she was. Of course these old ladies justify their rules on the grounds that other tenants will quit in protest and so they have to bow to the demands of the market. When we finally see a residence that is happy to take “coloured” guests, it is semi-derelict and clearly not long for demolition.
Sapphire used to go to the International Club, a curious institution inclusive of all members of the New Commonwealth and presided over by a middle-aged white man. The young pianist (no name and not credited) who knew her explains how she quit and moved on to a new world.
PIANIST: Sapphire found she could pass for white. I was there the day it happened… we had just finished coffee. I went to pay the bill. A white lady came in, took one look at my black mug, and said “Oh, I see they’ve let the jungle in” – she said this to Sapphire, you see, like they were the same. Sapphire left before I got my change. When I went outside she’d gone. Silly little peasant.
There are class differences in all of these worlds – the son of a distinguished African scoffs at the “sanctimonious” little police bureaucrat Hazard as soon as he’s out of earshot, and doesn’t want his daddy to know he goes to nightclubs with riffraff in case he cuts his allowance off. Away from the fancy world of the well-spoken students on exchange schemes there are West Indians and others having a rougher time. Johnny Fiddle is pursued around the night time streets by Learoyd and his men, getting racial abuse from a gaff full of white criminals, getting beaten by a gang of Teds, and finally being smuggled off the street by another kind-hearted white guy, before getting caught anyway.
Since this is long before any concerns about police methods were prominent, the interrogation is rough and held without legal advice. Hazard does remember that they need a good reason to ask for search warrants, but he can easily cook one up when he feels like it anyway. Learoyd doesn’t like the suggestion that he plants evidence. Ironically he ends up getting Johnny his alibi as he can’t stand being goaded by a group who clearly aren’t impressed by him and are laughing in his face.
This story has another twist, as the murderer reveals their identity by being unable to keep their racism politely under control in mixed company. Learoyd has had to learn and grow a little, and Hazard can be pleased that at least this time the force managed to solve a case of a dead woman who seemed to have a secret life in the world of night clubs.
Finally, Burning An Illusion (1981). A film made with the minority viewpoint right at the centre rather than as an object of curiosity, and with a woman as the main subject as well.
Pat has left home and has her own flat and an office job but is still close to her parents. So when she starts going out with Del, who works as a toolmaker, he has to meet her parents and get approval.
He moves in with her after a big row with his dad. But the relationship isn’t progressing very far after a year, and Pat is often on her own reading romantic fiction.
Her friends aren’t happy with their men as well and there’s a lot of time for the girls to chat about them.
Del doesn’t get on well with a new foreman, who seems to be prejudiced and doesn’t need much excuse to finally sack him for lateness.
Fun fact: the racist foreman is played by Andy De La Tour, who was at this time having some success as an uncompromising Marxist stand-up on the new “alternative comedy” scene. Also in 1981 was broadcast the mini-series Wolcott, which included appearances from Rik Mayall as a racist policeman, Alexei Sayle as an anti-Nazi campaigner, with Keith Allen as a National Front supporter heckling him.
Pat wasn’t keen on Del having his mates round, but now he gets a bit out of hand and she has to kick him out.
After a cooling-off period they are ready to get back together but then a fight at the club brings the law round, and Del makes a rash decision which puts him in a lot of trouble.
Sent to prison for 4 years, this is now a time for both of them to do a bit more serious reading and thinking.
Pat gets involved with campaigning groups for prisoners and other causes and reading Malcolm X and Angela Davis. She literally “burns her illusion” by throwing out her old Barbara Cartland books for incineration, replacing her with Fanon and others. But she was never completely unaware of Black History as she had a Marcus Garvey poster on the wall of her bedroom right since at least the start of the time she was seeing Del.
The new disc release of the film includes an interview with Cassie McFarlane. She relates that her agent advised against taking the film as it would get her a reputation for working in minority roles rather than being a mainstream actress… but the latter just meant hoping for odd TV appearances as “maids and nurses”, and so she took the chance. It didn’t lead to any more films and she lost her agent. It would of course be wonderful to say that 1981 marked the culmination of a story of progress started with Borderline and afterwards we have lots of films like Burning An Illusion, but that didn’t happen.
Another extra included on the disc are 2 grim background works: Blood Ah Go Run (1982), a documentary that Menelik Shabazz made about the 1981 New Cross Fire and the riots and marches in its aftermath. There is also his 1977 documentary Step Forward Youth, interviewing black teenagers in Brixton. Amongst the observations offered is that white families aren’t sufficiently respectful of their elderly, and don’t usually have more than 2 generations under the same roof. David Harris and his parents aren’t typical any more, if they ever were, or perhaps they’ve moved out of London by now.