France’s slogan is “liberty, equality, fraternity”, but instead of taking it for an ideal, the country takes it for granted. Proof of its apparent equality, for example, the country treats all French people as equal French, primarily prohibiting the collection of statistics on race, religion and ethnicity. This policy, however, does not change the fact that France has serious issues of racial inequality and discrimination, issues which are addressed, in a substantial but comical manner, in “Simply Black”, a mock metafictional documentary directed by Jean- Pascal Zadi and John Wax. (He performed in person this weekend and has been online since Sunday, as part of the “Burning Brighter” festival at the French Institute Alliance Française.)
Zadi, a black actor and filmmaker whose family is Ivorian and who grew up in Normandy, plays a fictionalized version of himself, of the same name. (We will call the character Jean-Pascal.) The film begins with Jean-Pascal sitting at his home, in his bright and pleasant apartment, and filming a video in which he declares his intention to organize a black march in Paris, to protest against the shortage of blacks in the French media, cinema and politics. He does not hide the extent of his ambitions: the United States has Martin Luther King, Jr., and South Africa has Nelson Mandela, he says, but France has no one like it – and will have Jean. -Pascal Zadi.
Unlike the real Zadi (who is an independent filmmaker, rapper, radio host and TV comedian), Jean-Pascal is an aspiring actor who struggles to secure movie roles due to the unchallenged stereotypes of Blacks in French cinema. (In one audition, a white filmmaker considers him for the role of a character who is a drug dealer, rapist, and Islamist; in another, acclaimed director Mathieu Kassovitz, mocking himself, dismisses Jean- Pascal for not being African enough.) While Jean-Pascal is sincere in expressing his rage against racial injustice, he is also cynical enough to take advantage of his intended march for self-promotion. Instead of organizing at the grassroots, he advertises the event and himself, through a series of Borat-style stunts, creating a political street theater, in controversial costumes, including dressing as a slave. (For all of their significance, “Simply Black” condenses these scenes into a quick cut.) His performances go viral, but what makes him a celebrity is a stunt that goes awry: when he can’t meet the mayor from Paris, he screams his protest into a megaphone and is brutally arrested by a horde of police officers. Video of the incident is shown and discussed on a hugely popular TV show, giving Jean-Pascal an encounter with French artists of color he relies on to amplify the event. As part of this promotion, Jean-Pascal also arranges to be filmed almost permanently, for a documentary on himself, during his days and nights at work.
His encounters with other French celebrities provide the gist of the film (many, including Omar Sy, come across as – sometimes satirical – versions of themselves), and are crucial to Zadi’s political insights. “Simply Black” passes before the subject of ghettoization; it does not look at housing projects in outlying suburban neighborhoods that are strategically far from the city. Rather, it shows how even famous and successful black artists suffer exclusion and slurs, and how cracks within the black community, identity crises and divisions form under this pressure. (Zadi said he was inspired by the Million Man March: “I found it funny to do a march against exclusion that a lot of people were excluded from. It gave me a good basic pitch. “)
Jean-Pascal has an outward resentment towards the celebrities he meets. Naive, deaf and apparently oblivious, he pugnaciously criticizes black artists. He criticizes actress Claudia Tagbo, born in Côte d’Ivoire, for her jokes about African women. (She physically throws him out of his dressing room.) He annoys journalist Kareen Guiock by insisting on calling her a “black reporter” rather than just a reporter. He starts a fight in a restaurant between the actors and directors Fabrice Éboué (who collaborated on the screenplay) and Lucien Jean-Baptiste over their portrayal of black characters in their films. Summoned by comedians Ramzy and Melha Bedia, brother and sister of Algerian origin, to extend the march to the French from North Africa, he triggers a three-way dispute between them, blacks and Jewish allies (represented by comedian Jonathan Cohen ). Plus, whenever Jean-Pascal meets activists involved in real-world politics, he manages to embarrass and humiliate himself.
All of these conflicts, and many more, are portrayed with comedy ranging from the twisted to the ancient, from the sotto voce to the turbulent physique. (There is also an extensive box regarding the reputation of the French monologue Dieudonné, who is now known more for his anti-Semitism and denial than famous for his sense of humor.) For all the serious diagnosis of race relations in a country that Not recognizing the race, Zadi creates an extraordinary comic work of rhythm and brilliance. The humor is amplified by a sense of wonder to see so many French personalities coming together for a common purpose as they negotiate a tightrope between commercial success and civic responsibility, between their public images of artists and their personal identities of members of marginalized communities in France. One of the film’s crucial words is “communitarianism”, communitarianism, a French term used as pejorative to characterize the plea in favor of an ethnic group or a religion – and with which Jean-Pascal rightly contests. He ends up facing his inadequacy as an organizer and promoter, and is ready to throw in the towel, until (avoiding spoilers) he endures even more shock – filmed with great cinematic spirit – who affirm the urgency of his cause.
Zadi started his film career directing a hip-hop documentary in 2005 before moving on as a feature film director, which he did completely independently, with minimal private funding, co-produced by a rapper he had worked with. He did so because he wanted to bypass the official grant process, which he said in an interview in 2011 would have caused a delay of several years. He added: “The stories that I tell, I’m not sure they are of interest to mainstream cinema. . . . These are stories that I see around me but never in the movies. He made three strokes this way; “Simply Black” is his first film in the system, and it allows him to display his comedic virtuosity both in front of the camera and in his direction. Working with Wax (a white photographer and music video maker who has been his friend for a decade), Zadi appears to be directing from the frame. His interactions with the other participants shape largely improvised scenes with a skillful sense of rhythm and movement. The format of the mock documentary gives Zadi – who is in every scene – a grand yet intimate showcase for his comedic art. Cleverly aware of the camera, he glances at it periodically, with exquisite timing, evoking cinematic geometry that is as much psychological as it is spatial. (These looks are reminiscent of those silent comedy star and director Harry Langdon made of his art.) The crucial subject of “Simply Black” is the lack of a historic French civil rights movement to inspire this protest – and the film is, in a sense, an attempt to fill the void. Despite its ancient comedy, it is building a serious case for political action and for a future culture that expands its parameters both officially and aesthetically to include black artists and their creative sensibilities.