French girls are fine but falling in love with them has some complexities. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Melvin Van Peebles’ The Story of a Three-Day Pass is about a Black soldier, Turner (Harry Baird), who interacts with a version of himself that doubts himself. Those doubts come in even as he gets the titular privilege. He uses the pass to drive from the American quarter of Germany to Paris where he enters a dance hall and awkwardly meet cutes with a white Frenchwoman, Miriam (Nicole Berger). There they dance until 11. She speaks more English than he does German and French. This basically reiterates American power and the access it gives to men who might have less privilege like he does. It’s an idea that we might get back to and expand later.
But there’s a bit of sadness in realizing that love is a privilege. Here, Turner participates in something that many his recent ancestors weren’t able to. A hundred years ago, white people bred and raped his ancestors and separated their families. Now, he has some choice. Van Peebles, from this point, captures the rest of Turner and his new retail worker fling’s weekend. This results in some fascinatingly strange aesthetics, specifically the costumes. My knowledge of late 1960s’ fashion for both Black Americans and white Frenchwoman are hazy and will return to me. There’s a scene here where he dresses like the guy from Alphaville. But for the most part, this film has the most preppy version of a Black man on screen.
For context, I don’t remember seeing preppy Black men on screen until 40 years later, during the second Bush era. It’s as if they’re cosplaying the idea of the American suburbs while they’re in Paris. They also do the same thing at the beaches of Normandy. But they convince the viewers of their authenticity as they’re playing couple. Reiterating this authenticity are their faces. Van Peebles could have picked the most model-esque versions from both groups but he picked these two actors. And this is a relief for an average looking person like yours truly. This couple might be average, but their challenges are not. Van Peebles gives them these challenges early into what can be a long and fruitful relationship.
Through Turner and Miriam, Story crystallizes ideas that Black comedies and films still use today. These ideas include the dichotomy of Black people constructing their own utopias and the white intrusions within those utopias. There’s the white resentment towards their perception of increasing Black privilege. And importantly, the insufficiency of white ally-ship even if those white people are in relationships with Black people. Those ideas overlap into one another as Turner worries when his fellow white soldiers spot him and Miriam together. She tries to comfort him and he temporarily snaps away from anxiety. They chase each other at the beach, running to and from each other while the real world waits.
Catch The Story of a Three-Day Pass at TIFF’s Virtual Cinematheque.