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“Simply Black,” Reviewed: An Urgent Mockumentary About Racial Politics in France

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“Simply Black,” Reviewed: An Urgent Mockumentary About Racial Politics in France

France’s slogan is “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but instead of taking it as an ideal the country takes it as a given. As proof of its ostensible equality, for instance, the country treats all French people as equally French, mostly banning the collection of statistics on race, religion, and ethnicity. This policy, however, does not change the fact that France has serious problems of racial inequality and discrimination, problems that are addressed, substantially yet comedically, in “Simply Black,” a metafictional mockumentary directed by Jean-Pascal Zadi and John Wax. (It played in person over the weekend and is online as of Sunday, as part of the “Burning Brighter” festival at French Institute Alliance Française.)

Zadi, a Black actor and filmmaker whose family is from Ivory Coast and who was raised in Normandy, plays a fictionalized version of himself, bearing the same name. (We’ll call the character Jean-Pascal.) The movie begins with Jean-Pascal sitting at home, in his bright and pleasant apartment, and filming a video in which he declares his intention to organize a march of Black men in Paris, to protest the dearth of Black people in French media, cinema, and politics. He doesn’t conceal the span of his ambitions: the United States has Martin Luther King, Jr., and South Africa has Nelson Mandela, he says, but France has nobody similar—and will have Jean-Pascal Zadi.

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Unlike the real-life Zadi (who’s an independent filmmaker, a rapper, a radio host, and a comedian on television), Jean-Pascal is an aspiring actor who’s struggling to get film roles because of the unchallenged stereotyping of Black people in French cinema. (In one audition, a white filmmaker considers him for the role of a character who’s a drug dealer, rapist, and Islamist; in another, the acclaimed director Mathieu Kassovitz, satirizing himself, rejects Jean-Pascal for not being African enough.) Though Jean-Pascal is sincere in expressing his rage against racial injustice, he’s also cynical enough to leverage his planned march for self-promotional purposes. In lieu of grassroots organizing, he advertises the event, and himself, through a series of Borat-like stunts—creating political street theatre, in controversial costumes, including dressing as an enslaved person. (For all their significance, “Simply Black” condenses these scenes into a rapid montage.) His performances go viral, but what makes him a celebrity is a stunt that goes awry: when he can’t get a meeting with the mayor of Paris, he bellows his protest through a megaphone and gets roughly arrested by a horde of police. The video of the incident gets shown and discussed on a very popular TV show, giving Jean-Pascal an in with French entertainers of color whom he counts on to amplify the event. As part of this promotion, Jean-Pascal also arranges to have himself filmed nearly constantly, for a documentary about himself, in the course of his workdays and nights.

His encounters with other French celebrities furnish the bulk of the movie (many, including Omar Sy, turn up as versions—sometimes, satirical ones—of themselves), and are crucial to Zadi’s keen political insights. “Simply Black” breezes right past the subject of ghettoization; it doesn’t peep into housing projects in the peripheral suburban neighborhoods that are kept strategically distant from the city. Rather, it depicts how even famous and prosperous Black entertainers endure exclusions and insults—and how cracks within the Black community, identity crises, and divisions form under that pressure. (Zadi has said that he was inspired by the Million Man March: “I found it funny to do a march against exclusion from which lots of people were excluded. That gave me a good baseline pitch.”)

Jean-Pascal has an outsider’s sense of resentment regarding the celebrities he meets—they have made it in show business, after all, while he has become famous for getting arrested, and his videos don’t translate into a career. Naïve, tone-deaf, and seemingly unself-aware, he is pugnaciously critical of Black entertainers. He reproaches the comedian Claudia Tagbo, who was born in Ivory Coast, for her jokes about African women. (She throws him out, physically, from her dressing room.) He antagonizes the journalist Kareen Guiock by insisting on calling her a “Black reporter” rather than just a reporter. He sparks a fight at a restaurant between the actors and directors Fabrice Éboué (who collaborated on the script) and Lucien Jean-Baptiste over their depiction of Black characters in their movies. Summoned by the comedians Ramzy and Melha Bedia, a brother and sister of Algerian descent, to expand the march to include French people from North Africa, he sparks three-way trouble between them, Black people, and Jewish allies (represented by the comedian Jonathan Cohen). Moreover, 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 depicted with comedy ranging from wry to antic, from sotto voce to turbulently physical. (There’s also an extended sidebar involving the reputation of the French monologuist Dieudonné, who is now more notorious for his anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial than famous for his sense of humor.) For all the earnest diagnosis of race relations in a country that doesn’t recognize race, Zadi crafts an extraordinary comedic work of lilt and sparkle. The humor is amplified by a sense of wonder in seeing so many French personalities come together for common purpose as they negotiate the tightrope between commercial success and civic responsibility, between their public images as artists and their personal identities as members of marginalized communities in France. One of the crucial words in the film is “communautarisme,” communitarianism, a French term that’s used as a pejorative to characterize advocacy on behalf of one ethnicity or religion—and which Jean-Pascal aptly takes issue with. He eventually comes face to face with his inadequacy as an organizer and a promoter, and is ready to throw in the towel, until (avoiding spoilers) he endures yet more shocks—filmed with grand cinematic wit—that affirm the urgency of his cause.

Zadi started his movie career by making a documentary about hip-hop, in 2005, before launching himself as a feature-film director—which he did completely independently, with a tiny amount of private funding, co-produced by a rapper he’d worked with. He did this because he wanted to bypass the official process of subsidy, which, he said in a 2011 interview, would have meant a years-long delay. He added: “The stories I tell, I’m not sure that it interests the traditional cinema. . . . They’re stories that I see in my entourage but never in movies.” He made three features that way; “Simply Black” is his first film within the system, and it allows him to display his comedic virtuosity both on-camera and in his direction. Working with Wax (a white still photographer and music-video director who’s been his friend for a decade), Zadi appears to be directing from within the frame. His interactions with the other participants shape scenes that are largely improvised with a deft sense of pace and movement. The mockumentary format gives Zadi—who’s in every scene—a grand yet intimate showcase for his comedic artistry. Cannily aware of the camera, he glances into it periodically, with exquisite timing, conjuring a cinematic geometry that’s as much psychological as spatial. (These glances are reminiscent of the ones that the silent-comedy star and director Harry Langdon made a hallmark of his art.) “Simply Black” ’s crucial subject is the absence of a historic French civil-rights movement to inspire current-day protest—and the movie is, in some sense, an attempt to fill the void. Despite its antic comedy, it builds 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.


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“Simply Black,” Reviewed: An Urgent Mockumentary About Racial Politics in France