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The Story of a Three Day Pass Is Also the Story of a Failed Black Escape

Photo: Everett Collection

This story was originally published on May 6, 2021. We’re republishing it now on the occasion of Melvin Van Peebles’s death.

WE WUZ ROBBED (AGAIN!)” is how Spike Lee marketed a set of limited-edition Da 5 Bloods posters after Delroy Lindo failed to garner a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in the movie. From snubs for Michaela Coel’s exceptional I May Destroy You at the Golden Globes to Garrett Bradley’s exquisite Time at the Academy Awards, this year was a predictable repeat of Black filmmakers and performers going unrecognized by Hollywood’s institutional accolades. While Da 5 Bloods was vastly praised by critics and audiences, its singular Oscar appearance, a nomination and not a win, was for Best Original Score. Apart from the geographic shift to Vietnam, the movie’s narrative about Black veterans plays to Lee’s usual, and well-loved, thematic and stylistic habits, among them the double-dolly shot, in which both actor and camera are placed on dollies to give the impression of a floating movement. In Da 5 Bloods, the shot comes at the very end, emphasizing the picture-perfect reunion of Otis (Clarke Peters) with his daughter Michon (Sandy Huong Pham). In an interview, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel described how it was an honor for him to be “part of that role call that have done that shot.” While Lee’s consistent use of this technique from his 1990 Mo’ Better Blues on has made it synonymous with his work, its place in film history goes further back, to Melvin Van Peebles’s 1968 debut feature, The Story of a Three Day Pass.

Van Peebles also made Watermelon Man (1970), one of the first mainstream studio films by a Black director*, and his magnum opus, the Blaxploitation anthem of anti-police Black rebellion, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), but he had to leave this country before his talent could be properly received by it. And while Lee is arguably the most recognizable working Black director, whose films have bent and reshaped the way Black life in the U.S. is portrayed cinematically, neither he nor Van Peebles, with the exception of Lee’s screenplay work for BlacKkKlansman, have won competitive Oscars. The systematic underrepresentation in awards settings is reflective of a broader structure of exclusion (which in turn deprives Black films of attention and funding allotted to their preservation and restoration, which makes them less accessible). Fortunately, The Story of a Three Day Pass has received a new 4K restoration by IndieCollect and a release by Janus Films that will be showing at the recently reopened Film Forum May 7–13 before a nationwide run. (You can also stream it on Kanopy.) It’s a lovely corrective for a movie full of spontaneity and effervescent camerawork, both an intimate love story and an examination of the tensions and contradictions of a Black agent of empire.

With light touches of humor and a wistful melancholy, the film follows Turner (Harry Baird), a Black GI stationed in France, and his romance with a white French woman, Miriam (Nicole Berger). He meets her over the course of a weekend holiday granted alongside a promotion by his captain. The double-dolly shot comes as Turner walks into the nightclub where they run into each other, all eyes on him as the white patrons fade into the background and he seems to float through the crowd. That first meeting stretches from hours into days, all caution thrown to the wind in a romance mediated by the sweet inexactitudes of not quite speaking the other’s language. Coming a year after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Three Day Pass is a particular riff on the interracial-love-story genre; Turner and Miriam’s relationship breaks a social taboo and the anti-miscegenation laws of his home country (the Loving v. Virginia ruling came down the year before the film came out). He is found out by his fellow soldiers, who happen to also be on leave, on his last day with Miriam. They report him, and when gets back to base he loses both his girl and his promotion.

Three Day Pass came about as an agile circumvention of the obstacles Van Peebles met in Hollywood. His first two shorts (1957’s Three Pickup Men for Herrick and Sunlight) were rejected, and the only gigs open to him at the studios were elevator operator or dancer. (“This is the insidious part about racism,” he once said in an interview. “You see, when Hollywood refused to take my offer to work, they didn’t say that it was because of any racial reasons; it was because I obviously didn’t have necessary chops, etc. Unfortunately, I had no one to get a second opinion, and so I had to go with their opinion.”) So, in 1959, he followed in the well-trodden footsteps of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker, and other Black American cultural figures looking for respite from their country’s brand of bigotry — he took off for France. It was there that he gained the credentials that later granted him entry into the U.S. film industry. A maverick jack-of-all-trades — Van Peebles is also an actor, editor, and composer who has worked in movies, TV, theater, and Broadway — he started his European escapade in the Netherlands, where he studied mathematics and astronomy and brazenly added “Van” to his name. Once he moved to France, he worked as a journalist and made Three Day Pass based on his own novel, La Permission, making the most of a law that granted French writers a temporary director’s card to adapt their written work and eventually scoring an invitation to the prestigious Cinémathèque Française.

While the film doesn’t make an overtly anti-imperial critique, it does expose the ambivalence of a Black soldier. Van Peebles offers here a dazzling example of French New Wave editing techniques used with an unusually surreal flair to excavate Turner’s alienated psychology as a Black GI. A twist on Du Boisian double consciousness, Turner is presented as a man at war with himself. In his introductory scene, what begins as a normal mirror pep talk turns into a split screen. His reflection becomes autonomous and saucy, accusing Turner of being his military captain’s Uncle Tom. The film deftly captures the quiet, suffused racism of everyday encounters as well as the exhausting hyperalertness that this can create for Black people. The political force of Van Peebles’s aesthetic comes through in his effective, recurring use of point-of-view shots, like the ones he uses to show Turner’s captain calling him “a negro you can trust, trust to be obedient, cheerful, frightened, trust to be too frightened to go after a white girl,” as well as when he later cancels Turner’s promotion, chastising him for lack of discipline and displacing the whole problem onto the fact he was too far away from his base — rather than because he was with a white woman. Such shots create a formal alignment between spectator and Turner, making the Black viewpoint the default in certain scenes and rejecting the premise in much of dominant film that the white perspective is neutral.

The film is also a moving portrait of isolation. Turner’s holiday starts with a montage of loneliness; he wanders around Paris alone amongst mostly white crowds, being bumped into by pedestrians and regarded with suspicion by a bookseller on the street — his interactions are an uneasy combination of invisibility and hypervisibility. Relief seems imminent when, sitting in a café, Turner spots a group of three Black men sitting at a nearby table, or when, sitting despondently on a bench, he perks up when another Black man approaches, but the cursory greetings he exchanges with the men don’t lead to anything more. These frustrated interactions reveal a difficulty of connection between Turner and the other Black people he sees in France and the loss of both potential companionship and clarity.

(Had a connection been made, it could have illuminated the fraught premise of France as a refuge for Black Americans, which rested on a hierarchy, facilitating  differential treatment and France’s misrecognition of its own national racism. In “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” written right before his 1960 return to the United States, James Baldwin touched on this ambivalence. Speaking particularly about North Africans in terms that could easily apply to other Africans from Francophone ex-colonies, he wrote: “Their rage, the only note in all their music which I could not fail to recog­nize, to which I responded, yet had the effect of setting us more than ever at a division. They were perfectly prepared to drive all Frenchmen into the sea, and to level the city of Paris. But I could not hate the French, because they left me alone.”)

Three Day Pass provokes a multifaceted consideration of the problems of connection, access, and shared knowledge. Spike Lee’s inheritance of Van Peebles’s techniques emphasizes the importance of thinking of Black film in historical terms. Certain conversations about contemporary Black cinema have been consistently limited by a disinterest and also a lack of access to their predecessors. Without discrediting their exceptional interventions, when Get Out and Moonlight first came out, discussions of the films seemed to isolate them from earlier works of Black horror and Black queer cinema. Engagements situating them in a larger context were delayed and revealed an overinvestment in newness and exceptionalism to the detriment of paying attention to long lineages of cultural memory.

A few hours into meeting, Turner and Miriam decide to spend the rest of the weekend on an adorable road trip to the beach in Normandy. Before they have sex, the film reveals both of their preluding reveries. In Turner’s case, he is dressed like an 18th-century French aristocrat who parades around his châteaux. Miriam’s daydream shows her running in a forest wearing a torn white slip, accompanied by what would be coded as “tribal music” as she is suddenly surrounded by a group of Black men who place her on an altar as Turner approaches to kiss her, wearing what seems to be a kimonolike wrap, chunky hoop earrings, and a bone in his hair. Van Peebles avoids a saccharine rendering of the couple as the sort of progressive-swirl utopia; the naïve sincerity of their brief love story is undercut by these Freudian expositions. A similar desire to be assimilated into whiteness and its elite on its terms is a strategy that fails Black filmmakers and their champions time and again. The snubs will continue, but they never represented the failure to meet a worthwhile value judgment. Rather, they are proof of the mainstream U.S. film industry’s critical limitations and impoverished metrics of taste. No matter who wins the big awards, these accolades will always reflect corporate Hollywood: an unreformable architecture of wealth and cultural commodification. Perhaps the institutional validation is not worth the effort.

The Hollywood that Van Peebles had to circumvent to make Three Day Pass is the same one which continues to misrecognize the variations and non-monolithic possibilities of Black cinema. There would be so much more to be gained through collective efforts toward practices of production and distribution that aren’t bound to neoliberal ideological infrastructures and the stifling demands of capitalism. Hollywood won’t change, but building alternative structures which are capable of sustaining the rich circuits of cultural memory can be made possible.

An earlier version of this story stated that Watermelon Man was the first mainstream studio film by a Black director. That distinction belongs to Gordon Parks’s The Learning Tree.

We’re Lucky The Story of a Three Day Pass Got Made at All