While our own nation continues to fight for justice on behalf of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others whose lives have been lost at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, we are not alone. In light of the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, people in France remember Adama Traoré, a Malian-French man who was killed in police custody on his 24th birthday, four years ago. His death resulted in an uproar of people all over the country, participating in riots and protests, raising their voices in a fight against police brutality, a fight that has since been revived in recent months.
On April 6th, 1993, 17-year-old Makome M’Bowole was shot and killed by a police officer in Paris while in custody. Riots and protests filled the streets of the city and inspired young director Matthieu Kassovitz to start writing what would become the cautionary and haunting tale of his renowned film La Haine (1995). While the film specifically targets the issues of police brutality, it also reflects the issues of class tensions and touches on racial privilege.
This year, the British Film Institute (BFI) will be bringing a 4k rerelease of La Haine (1995) to UK theaters in September. The current global unrest in response to the irresponsibility within law enforcement makes this 25th anniversary rerelease all the more disturbingly relevant and timely, emphasizing a horrifying cycle that our nations seem to have yet overcome.
La Haine, which translated to English means “Hatred,” tells a story that follows three friends, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and Vinz (Vincent Cassel), in the hours following the brutal beating of their friend Abdel (Abdel Ahmed Ghili) by police officers, leaving him in critical condition and fighting for his life. Saïd is the chatty friend of the group. Throughout the film, he comes off as playful and witty, seemingly optimistic, and occasionally naïve. Hubert appears to be the more contemplative of the three. He is thoughtful, wise, and is shown to be the most motivated to leave the environment of the banlieue to give himself and his family a better life. The most aggressive of the group is Vinz. Vinz is the only one between the three who participated in the riots and looting, where he stumbled upon an officer’s gun that he steals, vowing to use it to kill a police officer if their friend Abdel dies.
The film opens with documentary footage pulled from the riots and protests that occurred after the police killings of Malik Oussekine in 1986 and of M’Bowole in 1993. Over the images of people in the streets marching, fighting, and burning property, the song “Burnin and Lootin” by The Wailers plays overhead with its lyrics highlighting the violence committed by those “dressed in uniforms of brutality.” We’re brought to the “banlieues” of Paris by a news title that reads “BANLIEUE EMEUTS” (“OUTSKIRT RIOTS”) launching the story into action. The narrative begins with the sound of an anxious clock ticking quickly over a title card that reads “10:38,” suddenly interrupted with the bang of a gunshot, cutting to a close up on the face of Saïd, his eyes shut, slowly opening. Before him stands a multitude of police officers guarding what remains of their station after the defacing events of the previous night. He approaches one of the police vans and tags his name followed by the words “f**k the police.” These first 10 minutes set the tone for the rest of the film, highlighting its anxious, clever, and socially rebellious nature.
Shot entirely in black and white, the film seems to allude to a classic formal aesthetic of cinema that contrasts with its rather progressively innovative camera movements and narrative style for its time. While greyscale on film finds definition through contrast, it aesthetically brings the subjects on the screen closer together by removing any saturation that might deter from what is being expressed through the composition of each shot. Simultaneously, however, the greyscale also makes that contrast between the juxtaposition of light and dark all the more striking. In regards to the issue of racial privilege between the three friends, this is what most clearly separates them individually from each other. Most notably, Vinz, who is white of eastern-European and Jewish descent, although he is clearly the most hostile and potentially violent of the group, he is the only one who gets to benefit from his racial privilege by being able to escape from police attention with no question, while Saïd and Hubert are met with clear discrimination on the basis of the color of their skin.
La Haine exhibits an unsettling sense of timelessness which is underlined by its black and white visuals and adds to the eerie and troubling longevity of the film’s continuous relevance over the course of its 25 years in existence. This cyclical identity of this story is emphasized with the parallelling between the film’s beginning and end. The film opens and closes with Saïd’s eyes shut. Because he is the most optimistic of the group, we can assume he signifies the idea of a passive yet conscious ignorance towards the injustice that happens in plain sight. The beginning and end also share a story Hubert tells of a man who fell from a 50 story building. “As he falls, he repeats to reassure himself: ‘so far so good, so far so good, so far so good.’ but what matters isn’t how you fall, it’s how you land.” The importance of this anecdote appears to reflect upon the passivity of society towards police brutality. While in France, many of these incidents are looked at as “unfortunate accidents,” and while here in the States, police brutality is met with a clear lack of accountability, society has been too complacent with the explicit injustices we’ve witnessed all too often. We may still be falling, and things may appear to remain “so far so good”, but to avoid a catastrophic ending, justice must be strongly fought for until it is thoroughly achieved.