Reel Reviews | The Story of A Three Day Pass

by Tim Gordon

After a Black soldier is recommended for a promotion, he spends the weekend with a young French woman in The Story of A Three-Day Pass. The re-release of the debut directorial debut from the revolutionary filmmaker, Melvin Van Peebles.

The film opens on Turner (Harry Baird), preparing to find out if he will get a much-desired promotion. As he admires himself in the mirror, his reflection or subconscious, says to him that he has a good chance since he is perceived to be an “Uncle Tom,” the Captain’s “new colored boy.” Sure enough, Turner learns that he will not only receive the promotion but a weekend pass before his new duties begin on Monday. Before he is dismissed, the Captain rattles on about his ability to “trust” his soldiers, explaining the correlation between placing his confidence in his men, sounding much like a slave master explaining how his slaves should react when given a little freedom.

Soon Turner finds himself strolling the streets of Paris taking in the sites. Later that night, Turner goes to a nightclub where he meets a white French shop clerk named Miriam (Nicole Berger). Slowly, the two find they enjoy each other and after Turner invites her to spend the rest of the weekend with him, she accepts. Over the next two days, they explore each other, in the bed, oftentimes in stereotypical imaginary visual collages, as they glide through the City of Lights, growing closer to one another.

But while they simply want to enjoy each other, the specter of race hangs over the proceedings. The next night, while out with Miriam at a club, he takes offense when a French singer refers to him as “Blackie. After taking a beating and tossed from the club, Miriam explains that his “insult” was somewhat justified since he is “Black.” The following afternoon, while at the beach, several of Turner’s army mates see him and as they are playfully teasing him, Miriam emerges from the water and instantly their countenances change. It is in that moment, that his worst fears are realized – once word gets back to the Captain, he has lost his promotion.

Before his leave is over, he and Miriam spend one final night together, where they profess their love for each other and promise to keep in touch.  She assures him that his Captain won’t take action, and everything will be alright. His subconscious insinuates that she is wrong, I’ll let you guess the Captain’s answer.

Based on his French novel, La Permission, Van Peebles’ interracial romance was released one year after Sidney Poitier’s film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Unlike the romance in that film, there is a freedom that exists between Turner and Miriam in Paris, that doesn’t exist in the restrictive space between Poitier’s John and Katharine Houghton’s Joey. That small, but significant difference in these two stories with similar themes spotlight’s the wide gulf in attitudes between the culture in America toward race juxtaposed to the European attitude during the late 1960s. But while miscegenation was more accepted in Europe, there still possessed a degree of risk when American attitudes became involved.

Shot in black and white and re-released after 54 years, The Story of A Three Day Pass marked an audacious debut for Van Peebles, who would parlay the success of this film into the 1970 studio release, Watermelon Man and later his landmark revolutionary treatise, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released one year later. Considered to be one of the most important films in the history of African American cinema, Sweetback led to the creation of the blaxploitation genre, largely consisting of exploitation films made by white directors. One of Van Peebles’ direct influences, Spike Lee put it bluntly when stated, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film (a real movie), distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid. Without Sweetback who knows if there could have been a She’s Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle, or House Party?”

Despite his impact on modern Black filmmakers, this French Wave style, avant-garde story not just propelled Van Peebles to greatness but launched a Black cinematic movement. After a year of racial reckoning, the issues that the film highlights, remain as prevalent today as they were in 1968. While The Story of A Three-Day Pass was Van Peebles’ cinematic beginning, the film’s take-home message continues to resonate as Van Peebles’ story prematurely ignited a cinematic spark that still continues to rage!

Grade: B

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