Among the plethora of films that deal with some aspect of racial issues in the American South – from the classic In the Heat of the Night to the recent Selma – the 2016 film Sophie and the Rising Sun takes a different angle. Set in a small coastal South Carolina town called Salty Creek in the fall of 1941, the story begins when an Asian man is dumped, bloody and barely conscious, off an interstate bus traveling from New York to Miami. This one doesn’t follow the oft-traveled road of black-white Civil Rights struggles, but instead goes thick into the brambles and underbrush to explore the nuanced lives of pre-war Southern women in this deeply conservative culture.
Sophie and the Rising Sun begins elegantly with cello music in the background as we watch scenes of a young woman dressed in men’s clothes – overalls, long-sleeved shirt, and fedora – go about the work of pulling crab traps onto a small, white dinghy. Her mixture of self-reliance and grace remains the focus, as she does this hard work with delicate care. This is Sophie.
Briefly, we also meet the people who will play their roles in this tale: the nosy and self-righteous Ruth Jeffers who is feeding her horribly burned grown son in his upstairs bedroom, Grover Ohta who is abandoned and penniless in an unfriendly place, and Anne Morrison who is Sophie’s close friend and the town’s gardening expert. The tiny coastal town, we quickly understand, is abuzz over the strange but exotic arrival.
After he is found, the Asian man – who mumbles his name: Ohta – is first brought to convalesce in the potting shed behind an Anne Morrison’s house, despite her mild objections, and his needs are attended by a steady stream of meals from the local church ladies, including Ruth Jeffers, and by Anne’s black maid— who quickly quits.
After Ohta, who everyone presumes is Chinese, makes a quick recovery, the plot thickens when Sophie comes to Anne’s garden to paint while Ohta is helping to plant flowers. Soon, and perhaps equally important, a new African-American maid arrives: Salome, a woman who has previously lived in the town and who is returning after a long absence. With those complications, the multiple tendrils of the film’s story are all in place.
Though Sophie and the Rising Sun is structured around the forbidden love affair between Sophie and Grover, the story can’t be summarized so easily. From the beginning, the main narrative is interrupted by flashbacks of a little blonde girl running home, teary-eyed and disheveled. We understand her to be Sophie many years younger. Furthermore, the small town affected in significant ways by World War I – Ruth’s son was burned and Sophie’s beau was killed – is forced to react to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which occurred on December 7, 1941.
The intolerance of the mid-century Deep South is on display here, but not in typical ways. When Grover Ohta is discovered by a young black boy, everyone is unsure how to handle his needs, and it is with mild apprehension that Anne agrees to let him stay at her house— in the shed. After Grover recovers, he is shown walking down the small-town sidewalk with a parade of children gawking at him like a carnival freak, and Anne is first surprised that he is an astute gardener and later that he can read. When Ruth Jeffers is dismayed that Anne and Sophie have not been at church on Sundays, she comes to Anne’s house to suggest that the maid take Grover to the black church, since he can’t come to theirs, because “he’s not white,” she hisses. The racism here is shown as a fumbling inability to handle the presence of a man who is neither black nor white.
Yet, the intensity of the plot is driven forward by Grover Ohta’s presence. After Grover has settled in and won Anne’s trust, she shares with him an unused box of paints, which leads to a series of first accidental then clandestine meetings between him and Sophie on a secluded waterway. Very discreetly, their feelings develop into a subtle romance, but their first kiss is interrupted by the realization that two men in a passing boat have seen them. The news then reaches Ruth, who brings her screechy and insistent nosiness to Sophie’s house, inquiring first why Sophie hasn’t been at church then whether she was kissing “that Chinaman.” This confrontation with racist intolerance reveals the nature of the flashbacks: it was Ruth who berated the distressed young Sophie and cruelly disrupted her childhood games with a black playmate.
The film’s narrative shifts when Anne’s radio announces that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor, shortly after Anne and Sophie have gone into town and watched a newsreel showing dire atrocities committed by the Japanese military. Anne is first shocked by the act of war, then is more shocked to find out that Grover is not Chinese, but Japanese. From this point, the plot of “Sophie and the Rising Sun” centers on the Grover’s problematic presence. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor news, Anne returns home to find her garden destroyed and “DIRTY JAP” scrawled in red paint on the shed where Grover lives, then he is attacked by two newly minted GIs. Once again badly beaten up, Grover is hidden inside Anne’s house – a major no-no in 1940s South Carolina – and she tells Ruth and even Sophie that he is gone, put on a bus. However, Anne’s lie is easily spotted since she says that Grover has gone home to Canada. Sophie and Ruth both know that he is from California.
Our racist villain Ruth Jeffers will have none of it. She wants to know where he is. Anne then hides Grover in a cabin in the woods, but has to reveal his whereabouts when she herself falls out from the stress of hiding him. Now bedridden, Anne has to rely on Sophie and Salome to take care of (and save) Grover. It is here that we find out another meaning behind those flashbacks: Salome was the black little girl who Sophie was playing with when Ruth Jeffers blessed them both out for crossing racial lines. Salome will gladly aid in thwarting the mean old woman.
Though we have hope for Grover Ohta, we sense at this point that he will not fare well. Certainly, he could be put on an interstate bus back to California, but he would have to cross the entire South – from coastal Carolina to western Texas – before he would be anything near to safe. The likelihood that he would make it would be almost nil. And we are especially worried for him when a disheveled Ruth adds it all up and finds out where he is.
But it is too late for Ruth’s meddling. Grover and Sophie are loaded into a car full of supplies to make a midnight run. The final straw for the conniving old woman is a physical confrontation with Salome, who throws her to the ground and tells her once and for all to leave the couple alone. “They’re gone,” Salome says. While we are glad for Salome’s victory at that moment, we also know what it will mean for her when she and Ruth get back to town.
The last we see of Grover Ohta and Sophie Willis, they are among the California mountains in what we understand to be in a Japanese internment camp. He is planting a garden bed in front of a small cabin, and a smiling Sophie is sketching on their front steps.
In addition to being a fine film with a well-crafted story and some beautiful cinematography, Sophie and the Rising Sun handles the delicate hypocrisy of the 1940s Deep South fairly well. There are no easy answers in this film, though the villains are clearly marked— and to be sure, the churchiest of the church ladies is the worst one of all. And of course, the local lawman, the one who placed Grover at Anne’s house in the first place, comes in a close second for his hateful, nasty actions.
As a document about the Deep South in the years before integration, Sophie and the Rising Sun does two things that make it stand out: it provides a nuanced take on white women and their black domestic help, while also interjecting a new kind of racial conundrum. However, what the film fails to do – and what most films about racism in the South fail to do – is show what happens next. We see Salome throw Ruth to the ground in triumph, but we don’t see the consequences for Salome, since we have to know that Ruth is not going to accept defeat in that way. We also see the happy couple at the end, but we don’t see their subsequent trials as an interracial couple in mid-century America. While it’s nice to see love triumph over hate at a key moment, I’m sorry to say it but . . . it’s just not that simple.