Gone are the days when Africa showed films sent from France after they made a thorough round of the country’s cinemas. To get a taste of Western blockbusters, Africa no longer has to wait to receive worn-out film reels which only arrive after a given movie has financially broken even and interest for it petered out in Europe. Since the Canal Olympia network of cinemas arrived on the scene, films are released in Africa virtually at the same time as elsewhere.
Providing an outlet of expression for France’s multi-cultural society, which was described after the 1998 FIFA World Cup as “Black, Blanc, Beur” (Black, White, Arab), and serving as an unintentionally timely echo of the Black Lives Matter movement, the self-proclaimed “comedy of the summer”, ‘Tout simplement noir’, has landed in theatres on the African continent.
While the film touches on the Black experience and was directed by Jean-Pascal Zadi, a French national born in Côte d’Ivoire and raised in Seine-Saint-Denis (an area north of Paris), does it resonate with African audiences?
Unidentified cinematographic object
What is this unidentified cinematographic object exactly? It’s easier to say what it isn’t. Although it mentions organising a protest in Paris to speak out against the situation of Black members of French society, this mockumentary isn’t a propaganda vehicle for the demonstrations currently calling for better due process in the case involving Adama Traoré, a young man who died while in French police custody.
Neither is the work the allegory of a united, much less identical, community, as each performer, using self-caricature, expands on his or her own vision of what it is to be Black in France: the gatekeeper Lilian Thuram, the “dark-skinned” but too straight-haired Vikash Dhorasoo, the mixed-race and easily influenced Éric Judor, the “blacker than black” white guy Mathieu Kassovitz, and even a fictional version of the controversy-ridden comedian and (now) pariah Dieudonné Mbala Mbala makes an appearance.
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The film follows the main protagonist, the director shooting the mockumentary, who – as a failed rapper and actor – portrays himself as an opportunist whose ideology is as malleable as it is ridiculous.
And where does Africa come into play in all this? After a few scenes, the film’s Black celebrities more or less lay claim to this “proof of Africanness” that the anti-racist movement sometimes likes to brandish as a ticket to establishing activist legitimacy. Is Saïd, the Comoros-born rapper better known by his alias, Soprano, closer to the Arab-Muslim world than Black Africa? Should the Martinique-born director Lucien Jean-Baptiste claim his African roots or blame Africans for selling his ancestors into slavery?
After protesting in order to recover an African monument, the film’s main character labours on the point about African clichés: every Black person who is potentially useful to him instantly becomes his “brother” and he absolutely has to find out their exact origins; every active Black woman can use a little lesson on how to flaunt her rear assets; every female African expat has her sights set on a white lover; having African roots entails family traditions that are borderline inbred…
Though ‘Tout simplement noir’ dredges up clichés, it does so to defuse, if not eradicate, them.
The film is first and foremost a satirical farce which owes a great deal to the ancestral social practice known as sanankuya (often described as “joking relationship” in English). It’s a means of avoiding conflict through humour.
Perhaps sanankuya, by way of the arrival of African immigrants in France, has influenced the film’s humour while adding a pinch of the French stand-up comedy show The Jamel Comedy Club.
And if the film ends up being misunderstood by those who don’t get irony, then perhaps Zadi can say that he achieved a thinly articulated goal: as justification for his jealous coolness towards Omar Sy – a French actor of Senegalese and Mauritian origin – the main character comments that it’s fishy to be both Black and rank as one of the top celebrities preferred by French people.
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