|Le Septième Art in Black|
|“Black French Cinema” and the “Black” Presence in France|
|Vanderbilt University | Trica Danielle Keaton, Associate Professor|
What is “Black French Cinema” in France, and what images of and preoccupations about French society does this largely underexploited genre of “le septième art” both examine and reflect? Arguably, “Black French Cinema” owes its existence to the rich traditions of African and Antillean filmmaking that precedes and inheres in it, and it often emerges in response to anti-blackness in a society from which a strategic and political self-identity or subjectivity—articulated as “Black” or “Noir” –derives. It comprises colonial, post-colonial, and neo-colonial cinema (le cinema colonial, postcolonial, et néo-colonial), already brilliantly represented by the work of critical filmmakers, such as Ousmane Sembène and his presciently masterful “La Noire de…” (1966) as well as Euzhan Palcy—one of very few women filmmakers in this field—whose “Rue Cases-Nègres” (1983) wrenches the heart as much as Alain Gomis’s “L’Afrance” (2001) strikes at the soul. In short, it is a fascinatingly thought-provoking and entertaining cinematographic formation, indeed one that warrants greater recognition, support, and development in France.
As a window onto French society, “Black French Cinema” is not only instructive in terms of its varied depictions of persons and groups in and of France who self-identify and are identified as “Black,” but also elucidating in its treatment of often taboo or difficult social issues, such as the (non-)actuality of “race,” color-blindness, or clandestine immigration. To be sure, France has seen in recent years exciting developments and inspiring activity in the artistic, cultural, intellectual, political, religious, and social lives of African descended people in French society. This would include African Americans or “Black” Americans in Paris whose positive reception remains a topic of intense debate. The myriad manifestations of these groups’ socio-political engagement and cultural expression in France have been richly documented in films that often fall squarely into what has been referred to as “le cinéma de l’exclusion” in France. “Black French Cinema” draws important light, then, to the causes and impact of a growing “Black” population in France and the forms of racialized exclusion that they experience both in French society and in the French film industry writ large.
On this latter point, for instance, diversity advocates in French cinema have long asked: “Where are the French Denzel Washingtons, Forest Whitakers, Wesley Snipes or Halle Berrys in France?”(1). Such a question conjures memories of a query similarly posed by the Collectif Egalité at the 2000 César film awards ceremony, much to the surprise and chagrin of the French academy and Ministry of Culture to whom the question was directed. Acting as spokespeople for the Collectif, controversial novelist Calixthe Beyala and director Luc Saint-Éloi seized that opportunity to confront the industry and demand greater representation of people of color in French cinema, on television, and in the theatre, in particular “Blacks.” Yet, the histories and struggles that produced incredible talents such as a Darling Légitimus on one side of the pond and a Cicely Tyson on the other differ in significant ways and have much to do with how “race” consciousness and practices evolved in the United States and France respectively. So, while it is important not to homogenize the experiences of “Blacks” in France and the U.S.A., the extent to which such comparisons are useful or even fair become somewhat irrelevant when faced with the staggering reality that “France's silver screen is still overwhelmingly and despairingly white.”(2)
The same could be said of the “bronze” screen too, that is, French television. For example, some rather arresting findings in a recent 2009 study by the Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel (CSA) show that there is very little diversity, or more plainly put, a glaring underrepresentation of “non-white ethnic groups,” particularly in “high visibility roles” on French television (3). Thus, discrimination, representation, and racism are central preoccupations in “Black French Cinema” whose actors are not only largely absent from the “silver screen,” but also missing in action behind it. Recently, the film industry was “found guilty of racism for preventing black actors from dubbing white stars in Gallic versions of English-language movies"(4). Those who suffered from such wanton double standards took their case and cause to the Haute autorité de lutte contre les discriminations et pour l'égalité (Halde), in many respects the equivalent to the Commission for Racial Equality. Their investigation found that:
White actors were deemed to have "universal" voices able to dub black actors such as Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman… Black artists, meanwhile, were victims of "prejudice and stereotypes.”(5)
It should not be overlooked, however, that France has attempted to pro-actively respond to the lack of on-screen diversity in French cinema and television. In 2007, for example, France saw the arrival of a subsidy fund called “Images de la Diversité” (Images of Diversity), directed jointly by the Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée (CNC) and the Agence nationale pour la cohésion sociale et l’égalité des chances (ACSÉ) (6). Among its multiple objectives, this initiative seeks to nurture and promote underrepresented groups toward fostering their increased presence in French film and television. While much work remains to be done, this measure’s inaugural 2007 budget of roughly five million euros supported over 150 projects that would likely never have seen the light of day without such vital assistance. Hopefully, “Black French Cinema” will be one of the beneficiaries of this and other support so that the real and imagined lived-experiences of significant and historically relevant populations in France continue to be explored and documented in motion pictures as people in motion.
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