A ground-breaking film for its treatment of race and sexuality, Borderline (1930) was directed by Kenneth Macpherson, editor of the influential intellectual film journal Close Up (1927-33), the first British journal dedicated to film as a modernist art form. Macpherson had previously made three short films, but this was his first feature and by far his most ambitious effort.
Borderline stars the poet H.D. (real name Hilda Doolittle) and Macpherson's wife, writer Winifred Bryher, both on the editorial board of Close Up, as well as the black American actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson and his wife, Eslanda Robeson. The narrative is relatively simple, depicting an inter-racial love triangle, but Borderline's attempts to portray the extreme psychological states of its characters render it a quite complex film.
The film concentrates on the inner states of its protagonists, using a technique that H.D. referred to as 'clatter-montage', in which rapid montage combinations create an effect close to superimposition. This method was inspired by the editing methods used by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, yet the film's attempt to probe psychological states was more directly inspired by the German filmmaker, G.W.Pabst.
The film also probes racial issues. Pete (Paul Robeson) is black, while Adah (Eslanda Robeson) is described by the film notes as being 'mulatto'. Pete, who is married to Adah, visits his wife at an inn, where she has been having an affair with Thorne (Gavin Arthur), who is also involved with Astrid (H.D.). Here he encounters racial prejudice from Astrid as well as an old lady. After Thorne has accidentally killed Astrid, Pete is forced out of town, while Thorne escapes punishment, thus underlining racial inequality. Although Pete and Thorne are reconciled at the end, the unfairness of their treatment remains.
As well as its explicit themes of racial prejudice, Borderline also contains an implicit homoerotic subtext. Although there are no overt references to homosexuality, the topic is alluded to in some of the performances. Marginal characters, such as the manageress and barmaid at the inn, have an air of sexual ambivalence, while the (male) pianist is seen gazing longingly at a picture of Pete on his piano. This homoerotic view of Pete is reinforced by the way in which the camera frequently lingers over Robeson's semi-naked body. It is also worth noting that H.D. was lesbian, and is thought to have had an affair with Bryher.
*This film is available on BFI DVD.