Ethnic Identities in La Haine

Discuss the representation of ethnic identities in any one or more of the films shown.

Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine features, as protagonists, an alienated black-blanc-beur trio of Hubert, Vinz and Said who live in the highly-stylised Parisian banlieue. The theme of race relations, like the setting of the banlieue, was not new to Kassovitz whose previous works included Métisse and Cauchemar blanc. However, La Haine features a very different and often pessimistic tone in an attempt to raise awareness about the potentially dangerous social problems found in these areas where a multi-ethnic society clashes violently with the police. This essay will look at the ways in which the protagonists’ ethnic identities are portrayed, paying particular attention to characterisation, setting, language and music, to argue that it is their similarities – and not any potential differences – that are highlighted by Kassovitz in order to indicate, as Carrie Tarr says, “that the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic composition of contemporary French society is an issue which needs to be addressed and not ignored”[1].

Firstly, in terms of characterisation, the cultural backgrounds of the individual protagonists are not provided in detail and are given very little screen time. Phil Powrie says, “La Haine refuses to explore the experiences of any one group”[2]. Instead of details about their ethnicity or religion, what is more often presented is their shared alienation, lack of prospects and lack of control over their own lives in the banlieue. This is an argument supported by Ginette Vincendeau who says that the, “blackblancbeur trio made racial difference visible only to downplay it […] it rapidly disappears to make way for a consensual view of the three friends, united in their social exclusion”[3]. Kassovitz’s refusal to be drawn on the plight of individual ethnicities in order to depict the struggle of all in the cité certainly seems to be an effort to raise a cross-ethnicity awareness and wide-ranging, national consensus on these social problems. Tarr argues that, “La Haine, despite its exhilarating style, is a pessimistic, realist film […] beginning and ending in violence, death and alienation”[4]. This is compounded by Hubert’s prophetic metaphor:

“C’est l’histoire d’une société qui tombe et qui au fur et à mesure de sa chute se répète sans cesse pour se rassurer : jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien. Mais l’important, c’est pas la chute… C’est l’atterrissage”[5].

This serves as a warning about the problems society faces, and demonstrates, as it comes full circle, the reason for not differentiating between ethnicities. Namely because, as Kassovitz said, “Ce n’est pas une question de race ou de couleur, mais bien une question sociale, économique et générationelle[6]. In other words, to Kassovitz, their ethnicity is irrelevant. What matters is their oppression and alienation, their frustration and lack of prospects, and he thinks that the problems will soon escalate, as suggested by the ticking time bomb metaphor.

Despite this lack of difference depicted between the ethnicities, it is Vinz who is undoubtedly the star and it is around him that the narrative tension builds as Said and Hubert continually attempt to pacify his desire for violent revenge. In fact, Tarr points out that Kassovitz “prioritises the identity of his […] young white, Jewish protagonists at the same time as he constructs an unproblematically shared urban and suburban multi-ethnic (male) youth culture, heavily influenced by African-American popular culture”[7]. This could perhaps be as a result of Kassovitz’s love of the urban, rap scene and his desire to belong to it; his passion to be directly involved in the solving of these problems having himself protested on occasion; and his own belief that young Jews also feel marginalised in the same way and should be accounted for in a narrative about this abandoned generation. Interestingly, Kassovitz equates Vinz’s cultural inheritance to that of the other oppressed ethnicities through the old man in the toilet’s seemingly pointless story about Grunwalski which makes reference to the suffering of the Jews in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. In this sense, he seems almost compelled to make an exception to his lack of differentiation in order to defend the right of the Jewish identity to be included in such a narrative.

With regard to the setting, the disparaging differences between the inhabitants and culture of the banlieue and those of mainstream society are highlighted through a trip into Paris, where it is clear that they do not fit in and where Said, for example, is shocked when the police officer is polite to him, in stark contrast to the usual police treatment afforded to him in the cité. “Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd’s alienation is representative of the social rift that divides the haves from the have-nots, the mainstream from the underclass, and the beautiful city center from the banlieue”[8]. This further supports the idea that their ethnicity should be an irrelevant factor when considering their hardship, and supports their undifferentiated representation. As Amy Siciliano argues, “The Maghrebian, African and Jew are not explicit targets of racial stigmatization due to their biological ‘otherness’, but rather their cultural ‘otherness’ as residents of the banlieue – transformed into spatialized, racialized markers of political-economic crisis, social fragmentation, crime and violence”[9]. For example, in the scene in which Vinz says that he doesn’t want to become the next Arab killed by the police, Said jokes about Vinz’s honorary Arab status. As a young Arab is quoted as saying by Didier Lapeyronnie, “Je suis Arabe. Eh bien oui, je suis arabe pace que j’habite avec les Arabes”[10]. This is a clear indication that, in the wake of the collapsing class system in France, it is their social standing as youths from the cité – and not their biological ethnic identity – that renders them the target of police brutality. There is a suggestion, here, of the recalibrated notions of racism; a movement from a biological perspective, to a cultural one wherein a particular ‘way of life’ becomes crucial in the desired identity and the oppressed identity, as Ballibar suggests[11].

The inhabitants of the banlieue are increasingly ostracised as their identity is alien to those of the accepted society. The protagonists speak in verlan with a mix of idioms of French, Arabic and American origin[12]. “L’oiseau fait son fucking nid[13], for example, highlights their lack of belonging to this society through the inability of their language to convey the gangster-rap urban culture they aspire to. As Michel Chion points out, “Le ‘fucking nid’ montre bien l’impossibilité de traduire en français la dynamique du dialogue américain ou anglais”[14]. This adds to the idea of their culture as separate and the sense of non-belonging in society. Furthermore, their alienation coincides not only with the disappearance from the mainstream of French working class culture – hence the trio’s attempt to embrace elements of the neo-Globalised Hollywood culture – and is set against the 1990s backdrop of masculinity in crisis. As Vincendeau says, La Haine, “captured a young generation on the brink, caught between French culture and that of their parents, and in love with American rap music and cinema”[15]. They see no place for themselves in France, and are somewhat set aside out of sight in the cité. Without prospects or support, they aspire to a very different and unattainable status of belonging within the culture of the American gangster.

In terms of music, the opening song, Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Burnin’ and A-Lootin’ Tonight, is a song about an oppressed minority’s struggle for rights and representation and plays over the real documentary footage of previous banlieue riots and, perhaps in his spirit, evokes the sentiment of solidarity and a need for social change rather than brutality. Moreover, the film features a significant amount of rap and hip-hop music, and was scored by the rap group Assassin, but it is the DJ’s mixing of KRS-One’s Sounds of da police, Supreme N.T.M & Cut Killer’s Nique la police and Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien, that is most indicative of the identity of the banlieue youth. This intertwining of genres attempts to merge the struggle of this youth with the popular music of the historical working class and the politics of French and American hip-hop music. Furthermore, as with their language, this juxtaposition of a symbol of traditional France with the American rap culture shows the banlieusards’ lack of belonging.

In conclusion, Kassovitz’s La Haine strays from the common approach of the banlieue film genre in that it does not represent differently the identity of characters of different ethnicities, but instead portrays a solidarity in the face of a shared alienation to highlight, as stated earlier, that as Kassovitz said, the problems of the banlieue are social, economic and generational are not a problem of ethnicity. Their identities are presented through the use of a shared depressing setting, the clashing genres of music that confuse the characters’ belonging and the inability of the French language to convey their multi-ethnic culture long ignored by the establishment and seemingly without place in contemporary France. Ultimately, Kassovitz’s wants the film to bring about action to address the growing social issues of the multi-ethnic society, and La Haine’s emphasis on cross-ethnicity banlieue solidarity and its refusal to accept the importance of the cultural and ethnic differences between those oppressed are central to this appeal for awareness.

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