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British Social Problem Films

The film is undoubtedly old fashioned and out of date with regard to modern cinematic styles and technological advances, but its themes and messages on racism and prejudice remain as relevant today as they did then.
Definition of Social Problem Films: Durgnat, (1997) contended that "The social problem film is hardly a genre" (p.59) but went on to say, in relation to 'Sapphire' and 'Victim', that they may be described as "by narrative structuredetective mysteries." However, such films sought to explore the real issues faced by that society. Ealing Studios in the 1950s encouraged the production of films that were not only melodrama or thriller, but that delivered a universal moral message. Issues such as juvenile delinquency, violence, sexuality and racism were incorporated into dramatic narratives that would engage audiences but ask them to look at their society and their own values, perceptions and prejudices. Jonathan Wright (2002) described processes involved in this, when examining British Social Realism, (quoting Lay, 2002)
"First the film-maker must have intended to capture the experience of the actual event depicted. Second, the film-maker has a specific argument or message to deliver about the social world and employs realistic conventions to
express this message or argument."
With 'Sapphire, Dearden and Relph did that, linking the detective/thriller narrative, with character, form, tone, pace and dialogue, in fact all the film elements that succeeded in reflecting the state of a nation in transition and the effects of racism and prejudice.
Historical Context: The race riots of 1958 in Notting Hill, London had raised the consciousness of post-war Britain, bringing doubts about their conservative, conventional values, and alerting them to changes. Immigrants from former colonies were flooding in, with different cultures, ethnicities and color; and these differences caused fear and suspicion of the unknown these new citizens represented. This represented a social problem, hence the film 'Sapphire' to reflect all the circumstances. During and after WW2, films showed communities working together against a common enemy. Many black and Asian soldiers from the Commonwealth and Empire fought for Britain and were welcomed during the conflict. However, after the war, as more and more came to the 'Mother Country', attitudes changed and black people were seen by many as a threat to the national identity and the economic security of citizens. Given those perceptions, Dearden's 'Sapphire was an attempt to highlight the changes, look at the values of community, liberalism and enlightenment, and adhere to values of tolerance and justice. These were the messages and themes.
Sapphire - 1959: The film sought to reflect the changes in society and the dangers of prejudice and racism, not with moral lecturing, but with a subtle, multi-layered approach. Bergfelder (1998) said of Dearden's work as a whole:
" far more complex and exciting than the traditional definition of him as a 'decent but dull' proponent of the 'social problem' film allowsit does not
propose a ...Show more


Introduction: The social problem film was a significant aspect of British film of the 1950s and aimed not only at entertaining cinema audiences, but also to raise issues of importance to that society, in that period of history. As such, these films can be considered as more than 'a good story', but as innovative, controversial and thought provoking…
Author : rschumm
British Social Problem Films
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