In 1926, Sara Newsome, daughter of a black British physician and his high-society white wife, journeys to glitzy bustling Harlem to make silent films. Sara doesn't merely want to act, however; she wants to produce and direct her own movies, movies about love, life and sex aimed at a black audience. She has the gift of revealing the sensual truth even in a feigned sexual encounter. Furthermore, she's not afraid to break the rules and expose the naked flesh and raw emotion of actual couplings - working both in front of, and behind the camera. Struggling against economic and social constraints, Sara nevertheless assembles a small, dedicated band of talented black actors, writers, directors and technicians, and founds Sapphire Films in a flat upstairs from a hardware store on 125th Street. The company makes blue movies with a difference: plot, intelligence, emotion, fantasies that nevertheless speak directly to their audience.
A Darker Shade of Blue follows Sara's life and career through roaring twenties New York, with its speakeasies and rent parties, to Hollywood during the Depression, though the Second World War and into the repressive Fifties. Sara's beauty, wit, creative genius and unfettered spirit draw both men and women. Her lovers include Gil, her director, collaborator and creative rival; alcoholic playboy Benjamin Austen, whose cynical humor hides his deeper feelings; and the charismatic, ambitious and radical Paul Robeson. She faces challenges from bigoted politicians and empty-headed studio executives, as well as from the people she cares for. She is lionized and abandoned, achieves notoriety as well as some genuine artistic regard, but is eventually ousted by the directors of the studio she founded, and left to begin again.
This book is a genuine historical novel, but does not completely fit my definition of erotica. Although it includes multiple graphic sex scenes between Sara and her various partners, as well as a few matings in front of the camera, sex is not a primary motivator of the narrative. In fact, the sex could be removed or at least muted to the PG-13 level without impacting the story significantly.
This is not necessarily a complaint. The tale of Sara's odyssey from porn extra to cultural icon is engrossing in its own right. Furthermore, the sex is not gratuitous; it does help develop Sara's character and those of her companions. It's also generally enjoyable, hot and sweet, slightly naughty without dark edges.
I suppose that ultimately, the category to which one assigns a book does not matter. The real test is whether the work leaves you satisfied or disappointed. Although I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Blue, while I was reading it, in retrospect I was aware of its weaknesses.
It's obvious that Ms. Campion engaged in significant amounts of research in preparation for writing this book. She dwells on historical details such as the advances in movie-making technology and the social structure of 1920's Harlem. Somehow, though, she did not manage to bring history alive, at least not for me. (This is, of course, an extremely difficult feat to accomplish.) Her New Yorkers feel more like tourists than denizens. The book spans nearly five decades, but I didn't have a strong sense of the changes those decades brought - changes in mood and world-view. Every now and again, an anachronism was jarring enough to completely pull me out of the scene. For example, I'm fairly sure that no woman in the twenties would gush over a man's "abs" and "pecs".
My other disappointment relates to the character of Sara, and is more idiosyncratic. She is a believable character, an admirable character - but ultimately, despite all her carnal encounters, she struck me as cold. The book covers much of her life, and during that life she experiences many lovers, but little love. She feels affection, respect, lust even jealousy. However, there is no great love in her life, no relationship that even begins to mean more to her than her ambitions and artistic vision. I'm undoubtedly being influenced by the conventions of the romance genre. However, without that romantic spark, I felt that her life, full as it was of adventure, innovation, and achievement, was somehow empty.
I must admit that I loved the ending of the book. It's the early seventies, the era of anti-war protests and black power. Sara and Gil are invited to address a Film Studies class at Columbia University, to discuss their early silent work. They screen one of Sara's first films, one which broke taboos by showing Sara and Gil actually making love. The scene has as much impact on this audience of hip young people as it did when it was first released, shattering their presumptions and exciting their senses. The reader remembers the chapter, early on, when this scene was created, and smiles with the sense of completion.
A Darker Shade of Blue is an original and quite ambitious novel that explores little known corners of black American history. While it is not without flaws, it is different enough to be worth reading.