Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cross-Cultural Racial Attitudes

France's runaway hit movie of the season is Intouchables, which features a wealthy white quadriplegic (François Cluzet) who hires a black man from the projects (Omar Sy) as his helper. Arun Kapil notes that the film, which has attracted huge audiences in France, has also been roundly panned by American reviewers:

Maybe I’ve lived in France too long, or have just come to view black-white racial dynamics differently from the way they are outre-Atlantique. Variety’s critic simply hated the pic. Money quote

Though never known for their subtlety, French co-helmers/scripters Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have never delivered a film as offensive as “Untouchable,” which flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens. The Weinstein Co., which has bought remake rights, will need to commission a massive rewrite to make palatable this cringe-worthy comedy about a rich, white quadriplegic hiring a black man from the projects to be his caretaker, exposing him to “culture” while learning to loosen up. Sadly, this claptrap will do boffo Euro biz.
Ouch! The critic at Hollywood Reporter was less severe, though only somewhat, praising the performances of Sy and Cluzet but calling the film “a shamelessly manipulative French crowd pleaser.” Aïe! Looks like we have a transatlantic cultural clash here. The Variety review mentions the 1980s Eddie Murphy-Dan Ackroyd hit ‘Trading Places’. Now that was a funny movie!
It's never easy to grasp the subtleties of intrasocial ethnic relations across national boundaries. I haven't seen Intouchables myself, but I have been watching the French TV sitcom Fortunes, which follows the hijinks of a group of young people of various ethnic backgrounds: Muslims, Gypsies, Portuguese, Chinese. A young Maghrebi real-estate broker married to a Portuguese woman dreams of making the big score and getting fabulously rich, but his schemes are frequently undone by his clever Chinese competitor, etc. You get the picture. Everyone gets along easily (except for the Chinese character) in a world in which Français de souche figure mainly as backdrops or comic relief. It's interesting to see how writers turn live social tensions into comic fodder, comedy being one of the (important) byways of ethnic integration.


Cincinna said...

  The French concept of race relations in America is always seen through the lens of Alabama ca. 1952.

Even though we have a black President, minority Governors, members of Congress, Mayors, CEOs of major corporations, and community & religious leaders on both sides of the aisle who are minorities and/or people of color. 
  And France, how many again? 
'Trading Places' was a terrific, funny movie. 
  This movie is more like a patronizing, elitist,  'Driving Miss Daisy' kind of film.
  No wonder it is a huge flop here.    

Anonymous said...

Good story. Would like to hear more about the arts in France.

Boris said...

No you don't have a Black president ! Obama is mixed race : the fact you don't make that disticntion shows the prevailing US mentality is still the "one drop" rule, and that's quite telling.
The comparison US/France is useless - there has been significant number of coloured people in America for almost as long as there were European colons, when we're looking at a few decades in France.
How about asking some coloured people their impressions ? We've had a fair share of them coming to live in France because they felt better.
Finally, one doesn't see many mixed couples in the US, where that's quite common in France.
Of course the situation greatly varies from a region to another, both in France and in the US, which makes any comparison very difficult.

PF said...

Wish US Hollywood had a leg to stand on, but it was only a couple years ago that it produced "The Blind Side," an atrocious dramatization of race relations with a white do-gooder bringing the American version of condescending culture to an unthreatening black man. Plenty of mainstream American movie reviewers liked it, it was a hit, and it received a warm, non-skeptical reception from the media in general.

Has the French film reviewer reception been near uniformly positive? I happened to see a pretty derisive review of the movie from Les Inrocks, but then again that's the US equivalent of the circa-1980s-1990s Village Voice, so perhaps to be expected.

Alex Price said...

I haven’t see Intouchables either, but it might be interesting to compare it with The Visitor, a well-received 2007 American film in which an emotionally dried up professor learns to love again from an immigrant couple living in his apartment. Although the professor uses his much greater resources to help the couple, the life-lessons all flow in one direction -- from them to him. Part of what the Variety critic seems to find offensive in Intouchables is the ethnocentrism implied in the black man from the projects learning “culture” (the scare quotes are his) from the wealthy white guy; the lessons go in both directions. The Visitor and Intouchables, from what I can tell, both operate within the realm of ethnic cliché: vibrant young “ethnic” characters counterposed to spiritually dead representatives of European culture. For American critics, apparently, it is acceptable for a white stereotype to learn from a black one, but not vice-versa, since that might be embarrassingly too reminiscent of old notions of white superiority.

Trading Places has a potentially very subversive premise -- that what matters is where you are born in the social hierarchy, that the only significant difference between, say, Mitt Romney and a black street person is the degree of privilege they inherited. Not a position whose implications many Republican candidates I think would be prepared to endorse.

Anonymous said...

I have an update on my blog post, of a piece in Le Monde on how immigrant-origin youths in the Paris banlieues view the film.


FrédéricLN said...

"Intouchables" -> great movie, at least from a French point of view. The first time in my life I needed three hours and three theaters to be able to see a movie (so long were the queues). The first time, too, I saw the audience equally composed of colored teenagers and middle-aged, middle-class "Français de souche" (you know, our WASPs) - and both applaused at the end.

But I assume its greatness lies in putting exactly the maximum weight (of vis comica) on the thin ice of social tragedy. A spectator living in another society (even if he is French) or in another time (ten years from now) will find the story "niaise", or find it disgusting, uselessly crude, or?…

Variety's critic didn't notice there is nothing about racism in the movie (or did I forget something?). The racism may be in the spectator's appreciation of the fact that the rich man is white, and the carer just-out-of-jail is colored — but it's just the case, everybody in France knows the movie is based on a true story - and the real persons are shown at the end of the movie.

Actually, the story might have been found very offensive, if it wasn't basically true. And that's a key of the success here, the way poetry, fun, even 'mauvais goût', have been combined, maybe a Goldoni way, to give that taste of human reality.

Cincinna said...

   The cross cultural Franco-American miscomprehension is vast, as these posts illustrate. The use of what is considered racially inflammatory language demonstrated here is shocking.
 Can we expect less from a culture that still features a dessert called "Tête de Nègre" on Café & restaurant menus?

  Obama isn't black? Don't tell him that. He self-identifies as Black. Therefore we do have a black president. In the US there is no such thing as métisse etc, unless we go back to "octaroons" "quadroons" & "quintaroons" from pre-Civil War & Reconstruction times. In the US, 
race, community & culture are important & valued by the African American community. It isn't the color of one's skin, it is the community they feel a part of. 
   "Français de souche" you know, our WASPs" 
No way! WASP, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are not "Americans de souche".  We are a distinct  ethnic, cultural, regional, socio-economic group who came to America at a specific time and place: in the 17th c. to the Original Colonies. We have our own culture, mores, lifestyle, prep schools, colleges, clubs, and associations. In short, we are mainly Yankees. We are definitely not bourgeois, middle class, no matter what our annual income, large or small. 

We recognize each other, because of our appearance, and the way we dress and live. One might say we live within our means, or beneath our means.  We are descended from the earliest settlers in the New World, mainly on the East Coast. New England.
  WASPs are in no way comparable to "la couch populaire" in any sense, not culturally, educationally, economically,  religiously. 
  We are non-Evangelical Protestants, highly educated, successful & prosperous as a group. Our ancestors founded the great educational institutions in this country, like Harvard, Princeton,  Yale, as Protestant Divinity Schools.   
   Harvard 1636, William & Mary 1693, Penn 1740, Princeton 1746, Columbia 1754, Brown 1764, Rutgers 1766, Dartmouth 1770, Cornell 1865.
  WASP is now often used as an ethnic slur (probably out of jealousy), but the dress and lifestyle is idealized, emulated & copied by such non-WASP trendsetters like Martha Stewart (Polish Catholic) and Ralph Lauren. 
  The wider variant, and the far more interesting are the Scots-Irish who came in the early 18th c. in the 'Great Migration'. Mainly settling mainly in the South, these Hillbillies, and Rednecks (look up the fascinating origin of the terms) were mainly Presbyterian supporters of King William of Orange. 
They have been the backbone of America, have produced more than half of all US  
Presidents, and almost all the great American Military greats from Stonewall Jackson to US Grant, McArthur, & Patton.
  A great book on the topic is "Born Fighting" the ahistory of the Scots-Irish in America by Senator James Webb (D-Va).

FrédéricLN said...

@ Cincinna : yes, I know a vast majority of "Français de souche" is neither anglo-saxon not protestant ;-)

But we are "un Etat-nation", a large number of French consider that their only relevant ethnic / cultural / or even "religious" belonging is : French. (Not all of us ; around 20-30% would refer to a religion as a meaningful community ; around 15-20% would refer to some foreign country ; around 15-30% would refer to a specific region - islands, Alsace, Pays Basque ; around 1% would refer to being Parisien ;-) ...)

But I think the pride of being French with old-date French ancestors is expressed in very, very similar words to those you just use here.

And "Français de souche" never referred to any socio-economic level.

By the way, I should acknownledge that we do not have any widely accepted word meaning "Français de souche". This term would rather be used by nationalists or anti-islamic writers. Other workarounds are "Français", "Blancs" or "Gaulois", as recalled by Le Monde's paper , but none of these words exactly reach the point.

Anonymous said...

Well, I saw "Intouchables" and I loved it. I actually think it's a fantastic film. I liked it for the same reason I liked "le goût des autres". It might be manipulative but to a certain extent most films are.

I can see why the Variety critic saw what he saw, but he only did so because he couldn't interpret what he was seeing. So he looked at it as a Black/White story, kind of the Blind Side with an aristocrat for the taco-chain millionaire, and an African young man from the projects for the African American kid from the ghetto. Except both characters are very different (there's NO charity involved in taking Driss on, it's clearly selfish and I even wondered if Philippe didn't hire Driss just to get on his governess' nerves at first); the cultural context is totally different too.

One element the Variety critic fails to grasp is that in France there IS such a thing as "a" "legitimate" culture, or that it often IS the path to long-term success and consideration (much more so than, say, mere financial means if not combined with knowledge of culture) - the scene at the end when Driss gets a job simply because he impressed the recruiter by recognizing a painting rang very true (I have heard countless stories where such a thing happened and did clinch the deal... or made it fail). Knowing stuff, in France, is important. Knowing art and what specific names refer to is super important (unless you want most people to judge you badly). Remember that all kids study the same subjects with the same basic textbooks and the same curriculum from age 3 until age 16. "not knowing" something that most people know gives a pretty strong indication that you weren't exactly paying attention while in school and missed entire chunks of the basics. For people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, it's also some homage to the old "école de la république"; for younger people, it's just an acknowledgement that there are things that must be known, period, and even though one may not know them it's not "good" not to. BTW "I don't know" isn't something the French say easily and I'm certain they'd rather give you wrong directions than admit they've got no clue.

Fact is, Driss is black, but most of all he is a petty criminal like there are hundreds in the banlieue; you may scream at the thought that a banlieusard is depicted thus, but, well, we know that many areas indeed only function thanks to "business"; pretending otherwise would be disingenuous; he's clearly not presented as THE representative for all banlieusards though: his family is presented as hard-working and honorable, living a difficult life fraught with dangers (the drug dealer) if your family can't care for you (Driss, until the end, didn't care what was happening to his brothers and sisters or his mother). The banlieue is presented as a place void of beauty, with drab tall buildings, small spaces, and people who have been hardened by their life conditions. If that sounds unrealistic to you, I guess you need to read the excellent blog from Le Monde "urbains sensibles" or read "le bondy blog".

I've found that many French people, and far from just rich ones, find it very sad that your only way to measure worth is "how much does it cost". There is a strong feeling that beauty is for all, that all kids should be taken to beautiful natural places (hence, classes vertes), to visit museums (hence, classes musées), to immerse themselves in classical music (hence, classes opéra or classes à horaires aménagés pour la musique). The fact Driss has not been part of this is considered as a real deprivation.


Anonymous said...

Also, in France, I haven't heard of "culture" with C and c. Culture isn't plural, here. It might become so, but it's not. It's always French, various bits woven together. It's always pronunced with a capital letter. what "la culture" is is not straightforward and I still don't grasp it, because they consider graffiti art, they consider comics art, but anything current and popular can't be art.

And so it's not just about a man who doesn't know what he doesn't know, it's about two men who can learn - and it's very strange for France to acknowledge there can be some cultural value to what people enjoy every day -like music that makes you dance. A message is that something is also valuable if it provides enjoyment and apparently it's not a lesson that's widely accepted even today. :p Not that all French adults behave like hipsters but... ;)
(One of the first books I read in French was something called Comme un Roman by Daniel Pennac and it was very enlightening in that it broke taboos I didn't know existed and by doing so taught me a lot about French people and their relation to legitimate culture.)

BTW, the aristocrat doesn't learn to "loosen up". He is used to being treated deferentially and suddenly Driss appears refreshing to him - in a way that all other servants clearly find looney but since he's their master and he's tetraplegic, they'll humor him until he tires of it.
(Because yes, this film clearly places itself in the tradition of the comedic plays with the master and his servant.)

Indeed, one of the points is that by losing the use of his entire body, Philippe has become an outcast - this, despite his enormous wealth and his prestigious family line.
In France, buildings aren't mandated to be handicap-accessible until 2015 and even then it's unlikely all buildings will comply. Colleges are often JUST NOW completing their elevators but as far as I can tell, none of the doorways would fit a wheelchair.There's not that much awareness of disabilities although I think there was a "jour du handicap" not long ago. People in wheelchairs are widely considered brain-damaged. An educated man in charge of HR once told me "it's a good deal to hire people in wheelchairs, because they have to work twice as hard to prove they're not just a charity case plus it's a good action"
(I'm paraphrasing but that's the gist of it; I was shocked but at the time, about 5 years ago, that passed for very liberal.) Schools were not required to accept children with any kind of disability until 2005 and I learned teachers where I live only learned about dyslexia last year - and based on a conversation I had with some, it seems they were not all convinced it actually existed and that they were supposed to do something about it. So, the fact Philippe is in a wheelchair has a different meaning here (although that's greatly mitigated by his wealth).

Finally, the critic does not address the fact the title is "Intouchables", which means both "can't be touched" (steel armor/above the law/no right to affection) and "dalits" (impure outcasts).

BTW, for another view of banlieue youth, you can watch "mon père est femme de ménage".


Anonymous said...

Also, the "you look like President Obama" (which I don't recall) does sound true, simply because French people (of any color) can't name anyone who is French, Black, and powerful enough to be widely known. It's sad but the fact Omar Sy and President Obama don't look alike doesn't matter. Unless she was supposed to say "you look like Sarkozy", which would be an insult, or basically anyone else in French politics (you look like François Hollande, you look like françois baroin, you look like François Bayrou,you look like Jack Lang, you look like DSK ...;p)

I get that it may seem offensive that the master is a white aristocrat and the servant is a Black man, but let's face it, if the story had been a Black aristocrat whose family has lived in the 16e for at least 3 centuries, there'd have been a problem with plausibility. On the other hand, the servant could have been white (in fact, if I recall properly, all other servants are white) but I assume that in keeping with the actual "Driss" who is from North Africa, the directors wanted the character to be from Africa. However the story would have been the same otherwise. Personally I didn't find it shocking to see an actor of color representing a real person who would be considered "of color" by the French and I thought he portrayed his character in such a way that didn't hide who he is/was.
Apparently Variety and some French critics didn't like the way the opera scene was made fun of, but in my opinion the film both underscores that opera is beautiful and that some directors push the envelop. Come on, if you go to the theater/the opera, don't tell me you've never seen costumes and props as ridiculous as those?

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting debate. It seems to me that Americans se this movie as an 'ethnic comedy' while French see it as a 'social comedy'. In the US the society is divided into racial class while in France it's more social class.

Of course, since colored people are much more likely to be poor; the social class and color class is mixed. However, it seems to me that the movie is more the clash of a certain elite culture and class and the popular culture rather than a clash between white and black culture. 30 years ago, I'm pretty sure that Driss would have been a backward provincial who clash with the rich and educated parisian.

Many young white people would rather identify to Driss than to the rich aristocrat.

Anonymous said...

I think this debate is interesting because it shows the culture gap between the US and France. I have lived in the Parisian banlieue (Auberviliers, 93) and in a small Republican upstate NY town, and I can tell you now that the difference shows.

This debate puts the subject of American, and not French, racism in the limelight; because when the French watched this movie, they did not see Black and White, but Upper Class and Lower Class. American critics, on the other hand, denounced it as racist, because they saw the traditional black-white master/servant dynamic reflected in there. So basically, this movie touched a wound that was still tender for the US.

I think a few commentators raised good points before I did. I'd like to reiterate one: in France, mixed couples (the two partners are of different ethnicity) are quite common and nothing exceptional whatsoever. In the US, they are rare.

In addition, the French in general (notwithstanding the extremists, of course) would not use the word "race" to describe a person's skin color or defining features. I have seen it used everywhere in the US, from schools to governmental files. No one there seems to realize how misinformed the word is.