The exceptional Omar Sy
At the beginning of 2021, Omar Sy is a star on the rise.
He is enjoying phenomenal success from the Lupin series, ranked number 1 on Netflix in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands. And for a few days it was even ranked the most popular show on the platform in the US, a first for a French production.
He is the voice actor for the main character of Soul, Pixar’s newest film. He will also be appearing in the next Jurassic Park.
The actor – from Trappes and born to Senegalese and Mauritanian parents – has come a long way since his days with his colleague Fred Testo on SAV des Emissions on Le Grand Journal de Canal+ from 2005 to 2012. He has had an exceptional career so far, and it owes a lot to Intouchables, the comedy-drama directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, which sold 19.4m tickets in France and for which he won a César award for best actor in 2012.
This success opened the doors of Hollywood to him. Alongside being voted France’s favourite personality in 2016, he appeared in several blockbuster films including X-Men Days of Future Past, Jurassic World and Transformers: The Last Knight.
An exception in France
However, despite his fame, he is one of the few Black actors to have a successful career in both France and the US.
“In France, Omar Sy is the only Black actor with international standing. Whereas in England, which shares the same colonial past, there is Idris Elba (The Wire, Mandela), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and David Oyelowo (Selma),” says Blaise Mendjiwa.
The director of the documentary Le Monde Racisé du Cinéma Français argues that this is due to a difference in ideology. “The French constitution does not take into account someone’s origin, the colour of their skin. It denies any specificity, but also any inequality! I don’t think you can make a forest by denying the roots of every tree,” he says.
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It is in fact very difficult to have a precise picture of the presence of Afro-descendent actors in the French audiovisual landscape. This is because ethnic statistics are forbidden in France.
“The only indicator that exists is the diversity barometer of the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA). But this is not without flaws, since it includes in its calculations all the contents of the same channel, including US programmes, where the presence of Black actors is historically more prevalent,” says Marie-France Malonga, a sociologist specialising in social and media representations of minorities.
A quota policy?
Afro-descendant professionals have been saying for years that they aren’t being hired for roles because of racial discrimination in the casting process. And even when they are chosen, racial stereotypes are ever present.
In February 2020, actress Aïssa Maïga (Les Poupées Russes, L’Ecume des Jours) sounded the alarm on the Césars stage. “We survived whitewashing, blackface, the many roles as drug dealers, cleaning ladies with a bwana accent. We survived roles as terrorists, all the roles of hyper-sexualised girls […] And in fact, we are telling you that we are not going to leave French cinema alone.”
She was speaking almost 20 years to the day after Luc Saint-Éloy and Calixthe Beyala had invited themselves onto the stage of the prestigious ceremony to denounce the under-representation, and even absence, of Black artists in French cinema. It was an action that led to the creation of the CSA Diversity Barometer.
As a Black actress, France Zobda (who has appeared in films alongside Claude Zidi and Bernard Giraudeau) has suffered a lot “from refusals, the lack of roles or the feeling of being given charity when we are hired for a role”.
When she decided to launch a production company with Eloa Prod, Zobda set out to eliminate this discriminatory pattern, both in front of the camera and behind it. “I’ve already called a production manager to tell him that there wasn’t enough diversity on the set, in the technical teams,” she says.
For Mendjiwa, a quota policy must be used, at least for now, “to allow for the emergence of a cinema that shows the diversity of the street.” Malonga is more nuanced: “Quotas are a red flag, which are widely rejected in France. And it is quite simply unconstitutional!”
Malonga says that there are other ways of “persuading and of encouraging individuals to employ more people from diverse backgrounds without coercing”. For example, by establishing an equal-opportunities policy and by setting a quantifiable objective, without imposing quotas. This is what the BBC did in the 1990s. It set itself the target of having, by 2003, a staff made up of 10% people of colour. It met that goal.
A foot in the door
“Omar Sy is not a Black actor, he is an actor. When he plays Knock or Lupin, they are not Black roles. He has gone beyond stereotypes,” says Zobda.
Sy agrees with this sentiment. “I think we have to stop putting ourselves into categories. I am not a Black actor. I am an actor,” he said in 2014. “I’m not going to refuse or accept a role because I’m Black.”
Very few Afro-descendent actors have this sort of freedom. Moreover, Sy’s success serves as proof for some that inequalities no longer exist. “In the minds of some, since this actor is in so many films, it is proof that the problem has been solved! This reasoning allows them to reject outright all accusations of inequality, which they reduce to communitarian or even separatist words, whereas they are merely demands for recognition and inclusion,” says Malonga.
Zobda is nevertheless enthusiastic about Sy’s success: “People like him who succeed, that’s what we dreamed of […] I think he can be a battering ram, a leading figure in changing people’s mindsets.”
Mendjiwa is also hopeful: “Omar Sy has his foot in the door, and I hope that now other Black actors will be able to pass through to finally enter the room of French cinema.”