Tout Simplement Noir: Race, Class, and Media in France

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Tout Simplement Noir: Race, Class, and Media in France
As Black Lives Matter protests continue to roil the U.S., we’ve learned that similar marches in France weren’t just sympathy events. The death of a young African-descended Frenchman had already stirred controversy. The BLM movement recalled other police violence in the country. What a French minority artist might do with this burning issue has been a tantalizing prospect. Tout Simplement Noir was directed by the rapper-actor Jean-Pascal Zadi (co-directed by John Wax). It’s fiction, but Zadi uses the mockumentary format. We’re led to expect radical meta-cinema on the order of Borat, but we soon settle into something more like the Beatle parody This is Spinal Tap, featuring a host of media personalities playing themselves. Still, the film raises interesting questions about the confluence of race, class and media in France. The big idea of JD (the fictionalized Zadi), and the plot of the film, is to organize a demonstration by exclusively black men, similar to Louis Farrakhan’s Million-Man March. He also plans to read a manifesto outlining the grievances of the black male in contemporary France. There are hints he’s doing this to boost his own celebrity as well—in this day of social-media self-branding it’s impossible to separate the two. Unsurprisingly he has a cameraman follow him to make a documentary about his great-achievement-in-the-making. It’s the camera that gets him into trouble when he starts cold-calling celebrities, or as the French say, les People—more precisely les People of color. When he accosts a stand-up comic (Claudia Tagbo) in her dressing room, or another performer (Fari Lopes) leaving his venue, the camera makes them suspicious. Maybe the celebrities don’t wish to give up their image without a cut. But in the age of video surveillance and cell-phone filming of police and others, this is another cogent point being made by the director. The interactions can be funny, even trenchant, but often seem contrived. When he speaks to Ms. Tagbo, and she agrees to help, would he really choose that moment to criticize the stereotypes in her act? Would he bother to interview a North African entertainer and his Jewish colleague just to tell them they’re not welcome in the march? The sketches, which is what they are, often end in acrimony. One meeting with two show biz personalities results in slapstick fisticuffs. This gets tiresome—the worst is director Mathieu Kassovitz auditioning Zadi and trying to bring out his “authentic African character”. It’s a clever premise but degenerates into Kassovitz hamming it up—the kind which telegraphs that the person doing it is just a nice guy putting us on. Fary plays himself as a smooth operator, who both sympathizes with Zadi and the cause but smells an opportunity. At first, this seems like more schtick. But surprisingly the relationship deepens into Don Quixote and Sancho Panza camaraderie, although this Panza is more hip, not to mention sly. He’s already looking beyond the march to a film, with him as director and Zadi as star: Black Dentiste. Underneath all the comic business is the debate between traditional French “universalism”, which pretends race doesn’t exist, and identity politics, often condemned in France as “communitarianism”. Zadi stacks the cards in favor of the former, setting himself up as a black-consciousness straw man. The celebrities maintain that they should be defined strictly in terms of their vocation—a journalist (Kareen Gulock) explodes when Zadi insists on calling her a black journalist and not just a journalist. This brings up the complicating notion of class—and whether the minority of the minority who’ve moved up the ladder are qualified to speak on behalf of the underprivileged living in les quartiers.
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Lead photo credit : Photo credit © 'Tout Simplement Noir' Youtube trailer

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Dimitri Keramitas was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, and was educated at the University of Hartford, Sorbonne, and the University of London, and holds degrees in literature and law. He has lived in Paris for years, and directs a training company and translation agency. In addition, he has worked as a film critic for both print and on-line publications, including Bonjour Paris and France Today. He is a contributing editor to Movies in American History. In addition he is an award-winning writer of fiction, whose stories have been published in many literary journals. He is the director of the creative writing program at WICE, a Paris-based organization. He is also a director at the Paris Alumni Network, an organization linking together several hundred professionals, and is the editor of its newletter. The father of two children, Dimitri not only enjoys Paris living but returning to the US regularly and traveling in Europe and elsewhere.

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  • Sarah Turner
    2020-08-08 06:35:29
    Sarah Turner
    You were probably thinking of “Long Day’s Night”or “Help” both Beatle movies. The film, “This is Spinal Tap” is a C. Guest one. Enjoyed the article.

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