Is «the intouchables» racist ?
How what is perceived in France as a politically correct comedy
triggers outrage among American reviewers
triggers outrage among American reviewers
In the wake of the oscar winning film «the Artist», a new succesful French movie is now trying its luck across the Atlantic. «The intouchables» entered the US Box office in May, and the American audience seems to react quite positively, so far. The producers remain extremely cautious, though. On the first week, only four theaters in the United states were playing the movie, and their number is only supposed to increase progressively if the reaction of this sample of viewers turns out to be positive. Why are they so careful? Even though «the intouchables» met wide success in France and scored undoubtedly well in any of the European countries where it was released, the doubt subsists that it might not be fully USA-compatible. Cultural differences in the reception are already perceptible, as the movie that was intended for all audiences in France finds itself rated R in the USA because characters use coarse language and smoke Cannabis on screen. But it goes further than that. What is perceived in Europe as a mere light-hearted comedy on the improbable friendship between a young former inmate of Senegalese descent and the old insanely rich disabled aristocrat who employs him, might actually be perceived as highly stereotypical and offensive from an American point of view. As the first American critiques are released, they appear extremely divided, with some deeming it as racist and condescending.
The movie was never actually praised by the critiques, and is pretty much an easy crowd pleaser overall. It mostly owes its success to the interpretation of its two charismatic main actors, without transcending the genre of French comedy. It may have been criticized by the demanding French press for being easy, predictable, and full of good sentiments, but it was never accused of being racist or stereotypical. Freely adapted from a true story, the storyline is pretty classical. It relies on the confrontation of two characters from very different social backgrounds having to live together, with a morality that emphasizes the value of tolerance, friendship and open-mindedness. Driss, an unemployed black youth from the ghetto unintentionally gets himself hired as a home care person by Philippe, an upper class modern art connoisseur whom a paragliding accident has left quadriplegic. After awkward beginnings, they develop an unexpected friendship to the point of becoming inseparable. The two men take mutual benefits from the encounter, as Driss encourages his boss to seize the day in spite of his handicap, spices up his daily life with his cheerful and outspoken manners and leads him to start dating women again. Meanwhile, Driss finds the stability he needs to go forward in life and act responsibly. Everything here is politically correct from a European point of view and accusations of racism are actually hard to understand for French people. However, several American reviewers have openly condemned the movie from the moment it was released.
According to he Atlantic’s reviewer Jon Frosch, having the black character in the role of the funny one, as careless and spontaneous as his white counterpart is stuck up and intellectual, is evocative of a stereotypical vision of race that belongs to the past :
«it's hard to muster much enthusiasm for a movie that leans so heavily on regressive culture-clash shtick and unimaginative stereotypes (a soulful black guy from the ghetto, who laughs all the time but knows nothing of the finer things, helps an uptight, disabled, filthy-rich white guy learn to love life and hip-hop), and examines thorny topical issues in only the most superficial, conventional way.»
David Denby, from the New Yorker, is no less severe in his judgement, as he links the portrayal of Driss to the French philosophical myth of the good savage, candid and innocent, free from civilization and happy in his own ignorant state.
«“The Intouchables” is propelled by a particular French sentimentality about savagery and civilization that goes back to Rousseau. The plot, as a result, becomes disastrously condescending: the black man, who’s crude, sexy, and a great dancer, liberates the frozen white man. The film is an embarrassment.»
So, what is really at stake here ? Are the European standards of what is racist and what is not simply looser than the American ones to the point that what goes unnoticed on the old continent is susceptible to provoke such radical opposition in the US ?
The review by Jay Weissberg, from Variety, suggests otherwise. In his mind, the intouchables «flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens.», while Omar Sy, who interprets Driss, embarrasses himself «in a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race.» This must actually be the core of the problem : by referring to slavery, Weissberg adopts a point of view on race that is strictly American. The mere concept of «uncle Tom racism» doesn’t mean much in Europe, where we do not have the same kind of historical guilt concerning black people. The ghost of slavery is never far away when racism is discussed in America, and this whole story of a black steward and his white employer can be painfully reminiscent of a time when the paternalist vision of the white master and his foolish and unruly but kind-hearted black servant was actually the dominant vision. France is far from being exemplary in that respect, and our intensive colonization of Africa still counts among the most shameful times of our history. But the black people in France are not the descendants of abducted slaves, they are mostly immigrants from our former colonies, which suggests a wholly different set of conventions and taboos.
One of the reasons why the movie has been so misinterpreted may be the awkward translation of the title. «Intouchables», in French, refers to untouchability, the Indian conception of lower castes, who are considered to pollute higher castes and are carefully secluded. Since «the Untouchables» was already taken, the translators choosed to keep the French word even though it didn’t mean anything. American critics may thus have missed the fact that both characters, black and white, were equally outcasts. Philippe, as a lonely disabled man, keeping himself away from the real world, is in his own way as excluded as Driss in his ghetto. The French conception of political correctness is based on advocating the «vivre ensemble» - translated to English as "living together". This movie exemplifies the scheme of friendship, overcoming social borders and differences of all kinds. Its optimism and the naivety of its message should not be mistaken for simplistic ordinary racism, as immigration is more than ever a hot topic in France and in Europe. Jean-Marie le Pen, former leader of the islamophobic and nationalist far right party known as «Front National» voiced severe critics of «the intouchables», accusing it of presenting France as weak and sick, and in need for the support of immigrants, since the white character was in a wheelchair and the black character pushing him around. In May, Le Pen’s party, lead by his daughter, ranked third at the presidential election with 18% of the votes. In such a context, any mainstream movie that contributes to give a better image of African immigrants is more than welcome in my country. One might still wonder, though, why the directors chose a black character, when Abdel Sellou, the original man who inspired the story, was an Algerian Arab. As the social perception of north-African muslims is even more negative in France than that of black people, one may still wonder if the movie would have been as successful, had Driss been Mohammed or Rasheed.