MTo effectively combat racism, including unconscious bias, it is important to understand how racism works, what it is based on, and how it has been articulated throughout history. For, anti-black racism is not just the fear or the rejection of the Other; it stems from a system of domination that was theorized and structured from the 16th century on to justify the enslavement of Africans in order to develop Europe and America’s economies. It then continued with colonization, Apartheid, and segregation. Whether obvious or diffuse, its traces are still present today in our Western societies. They can notably be found in our relationship to Black bodies, whether inflicting violence on, controlling, denigrating or, on the contrary, fetishizing them. Here is a short selection of French-language films that have marked me, in which women in particular play a leading role.
La Noire de / Black Girl
by Ousmane Sembène (1966)
The first feature directed by an African filmmaker, the film is quite simply a masterpiece. Initially a docker and a trade unionist in Marseille, author Ousmane Sembène adapted his own short story to the screen, which was itself based on a real-life episode. He superposes race relations and a Marxist reading of class; today, we would call this intersectionality.
Mr or Mrs Such-and-Such’s Black girl… That was how French expatriates in Senegal referred to their African maids, Sembène explains in his short story. Shot on the Côte d’Azur in a minimalist black and white, Black Girl recounts the disillusions of immigration from the young woman’s point of view.
Vénus noire / Black Venus
by Abdellatif Kechiche (2009)
In this superb film, Abdellatif Kechiche retraces the life of Saartjie Baartman, dubbed the “Hottentot Venus”. This real-life southern African woman agreed to come to Europe in 1810 to take part in a series of shows that marked the beginning of what were to become the hugely popular “exotic” specimen exhibits. The film, which starts out in England, shows how Saartjie is forced to play the savage to meet audience expectations, an audience that cannot imagine Black women in any other light and believes that this is reality. This “construction of the Other” is a key element of racism. Today still, some media and politicians do not hesitate to create a truncated image of Black people to shape public opinion – for example, the threatening “youth from the hood” figure, or that of the criminal Black man that Ava DuVernay describes in her documentary on police violence, 13th (available on Netflix).
Unrelenting, moving and often devastating, Kechiche’s film plunges us into a dehumanizing process that will eventually consume Saartjie when she arrives in France. Fascinated by her difference, the people of the time fail to see that she is a human being too; they are interested only in her body, which they exhibit, sexually abuse, study and even dissect after her death. For, Saartje Baartman did not last more than five years in Europe.
Les Misérables by Ladj Ly (2019)
This is the French film about police violence in the country’s predominantly ethnic minority banlieues, or suburbs. A must. A tense, edgy work filmed like a documentary, it follows a day in the life of two trigger-happy BAC anti-crime squad police and a new, more moderate recruit, until the final showdown. A highly masculine film in which women are largely absent, it is a direct reference to Spike Lee’s cult film, Do the Right Thing.
Since its release in 2019, much has been written about Les Misérables. What I particularly liked is that it shows how the rupture of the Republic’s egalitarian pact triggers a spiral of violence. If the police start becoming violent, no longer respecting the citizens they are meant to protect, they in turn lose the respect that their uniform is supposed to grant them. All that is left, then, is confrontation and hatred. Both ways. Is that what we want?
Ouvrir la voix / Speak Up
by Amandine Gaye (2017)
Released a year after Mame-Fatou Niang’s film, Mariannes Noires, Amandine Gay’s documentary also gives young Black women the space to speak, sharing their experiences as racialized women in France and Belgium.
From the difficulty of being accepted with their Afro-textured hair, to workplace discrimination, to the exoticizing gaze of white men or the disinterest of Black men who prefer white or biracial women, to the feeling of being inadequate, this documentary takes us into the intimacy of an array of women and helps us to understand from the inside the effects of being exposed to racism since childhood.
Rue Case-nègres / Sugar Cane Alley
by Euzhan Palcy (1983)
It is not often that Antillean reality is documented in cinema, which makes Sugar Cane Alley a rare and necessary film. Adapted from a novel by Joseph Zobel, directed by filmmaker Euzhan Palcy when she was just 24 years old, beyond the highly touching relationship between a poor boy and his grandmother, who is ready to sacrifice everything for him to study, Sugar Cane Alley tells the tale of a fragmented society.
Set in the 1930s, the film portrays a Martinique where the consequences of slavery are still highly pervasive, where white Béké and Black populations do not mix, and where a social hierarchy exists among Antilleans depending on their degree of melanin – colour becoming a reflection of social status, a direct hang-over from colonialism. The question of identity is omnipresent, between a desire to Europeanize and to keep African roots alive. The film dates to before the emergence of creole identity, but certain issues addressed in it are still present today.
Mon amie Victoria / My friend Victoria
by Jean-Paul Civeyrac (2014)
In a completely different genre embedded in the French tradition of literary films, from Truffaut to Rohmer, My Friend Victoria very subtly portrays what is commonly referred to as white privilege. Transposing Doris Lessing’s short story Victoria and the Staveneys from London to Paris, Jean-Paul Civeyrac adroitly sets the plot in a family of white champagne socialist bobos. None of them possibly imagine themselves to be racist. The mother has indeed always “dreamed of having a mixed-race little girl”. And everyone wants to help the young Black Victoria, who comes from a poor background and who is raising her daughter alone. But without even realizing it, in their efforts to help, they little by little strip her of what is most precious to her.
I really like this delicately crafted film. Civeyrac had the excellent idea of adding a narrator character – Victoria’s best friend – a young Black woman who is doing well in the publishing milieu. He thus shows us that determinism is not at play here. It is worth reading Doris Lessing’s short story too – it’s a gem!