Aïssa Maïga, one of the few bankable Black actors in France, ruffled feathers at the César Awards last February when she took the stage and counted aloud the handful of Black people in the audience. After the ceremony, Maïga received an avalanche of criticism, was ridiculed by her peers and was threatened on social media.
“We pay a high price when we speak out. It’s easy for people to close doors without anyone noticing,” says Maïga, who was silent for months following her appearance at France’s highest film honors, which has awarded prizes to just four Black actors in 40 years.
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It’s in many ways part of a much bigger problem. The number of Black French talent landing lead roles can be counted on one hand: Among them are Maïga and “Lupin” star Omar Sy, considered to be the country’s top stars. Meanwhile, on TV, there isn’t a single Black host on a primetime daily show. In recent years, a small group of Black filmmakers — including Ladj Ly (“Les Misérables”), Maïmouna Doucouré (“Cuties”), Mati Diop (“Atlantics”), Jean-Pascal Zadi (“Tout simplement noir”), Lucien-Jean Baptiste (“La première étoile”) and Thomas Ngijol and Fabrice Éboué (“Case départ”) — have risen to acclaim, but their success has been hard fought.
At production companies and TV channels, Black executives are virtually invisible, with close to none in leadership positions.
As such, if there were ever a momentum that could have disrupted the status quo in France, it would have been the clarion call for representation against the backdrop of last summer’s renewed Black Lives Matter movement. But the resulting paradigm shift that happened elsewhere in Europe, like the U.K. — where broadcasters including the BBC set up inclusion rider initiatives and stricter diversity targets — simply didn’t take hold.
In recent years, the French entertainment business has given more opportunities to actors and filmmakers of Arab heritage, many of whom are descendants of immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa and constitute a large portion of the nonwhite demographic in France. Black talent, however, has not received the same support.
Instead, a confluence of factors continues to uphold racial disparity in the arts, placing the Black community at a strict disadvantage, including France’s constitutional ban on data based on ethnic and racial indicators, and the absence of diversity quotas and other affirmative action policies.
These barriers partly stem from France’s universalism and republican model dating back to the Enlightenment period and the French Revolution, which says that for everyone to be free and equal, no group should receive special treatment. For this reason, Black studies never took root in France, unlike in the U.S., where it gave rise to a shared racial consciousness. Within the industry, the French ideal has perpetuated inequalities by turning a blind eye to the issue of race, making it difficult for Black creatives to speak up and run the risk of being marginalized.
“Once upon a time, until around the 1960s, many high-profile Black Americans, intellectuals, writers and musicians found refuge in Paris to escape segregation. But since then, a lot has changed, and it’s the other way around,” explains Régis Dubois, a film historian and the author of “Black People in French Cinema.”
“Many Black French people are eager to live in the U.S., where there are so many more success stories and a much larger representation in the media,” adds Dubois.
In France, tensions between authorities and diverse communities — encompassing largely African and Caribbean groups — flare up periodically, unlike in the U.S., where the conflict is more sustained. Where the Black Lives Matter movement did have some visibility in France, it was thanks to Assa Traoré, who founded the Justice for Adama initiative in honor of her brother, who was killed in 2016 at the hands of the police, like George Floyd.
More recently, a video showing the gruesome police beating of Black music producer Michel Zecler in Paris went viral and prompted a series of protests against a bill banning anyone from publishing or broadcasting pictures or footage of police officers on duty for reasons deemed “malicious.”
The incident sits with an uneasy backdrop of recent Islamic terror attacks, including the murder of Samuel Paty, a French middle school teacher who was beheaded in October after showing cartoons to his students of the Prophet Muhammad. Such events have amplified nationalism, with the state discouraging civil rights movements and the scrutiny of police. Even centrist French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the protests led by Traoré triggered divisions within French society, placating the right wing.
Maïga, who is developing a documentary based on her co-authored book “My Profession Is Not Black,” says the disparities in origins within the Black population in France also further complicate the landscape by creating myriad, albeit fractured, narratives for the Black community.
“We lack a common culture on this topic, and yet each generation has faced prejudice, and each time their voices were discredited,” says Maïga. Growing up, the actor was aware of her Malian and Senegalese origins but “didn’t feel trapped in the ‘Black’ box.” It’s only when she entered the film industry that she “had to face the harsh truth.”
Though Maïga was inspired to get into acting because of her love of the French language, literature and philosophy, when she started auditioning, she was shocked to be “asked over and over to do African accents and play prostitutes.” Roles offered to Black actors are often limited to stereotypical characters in comedies, some of whom are reminiscent of colonial imagery, says Maïga. Her career eventually took off after she won a plum role in Cédric Klapisch’s “Russian Dolls,” a part that hadn’t been written for a Black actor.
Jean-Pascal Zadi, who directed “Tout simplement noir” (Simply Black), a film released by Gaumont in July about a struggling Black actor trying to organize a protest for Black people in France, says he conceived the idea “when I realized there was a Black American culture but there wasn’t a Black French culture.”
“I wanted to express my relationship with the police, [and] my French and Black identity. As a Black director, I never had the means to explain myself,” says Zadi.
It took Zadi five years to get “Tout simplement noir” off the ground. “Producers told me to get lost. Some told me, ‘Black people don’t interest anybody,’ and ‘You don’t have the profile of a filmmaker. You don’t look serious enough.’ It’s as if they told me, ‘You have no right to make a film because you don’t look like us,’” says Zadi.
The filmmaker highlights that there still aren’t enough cultures represented at production companies and TV channels. “I remember working at [an access primetime] show on Canal Plus. Out of 150 people, I was the only Black person,” says Zadi. “There is no role model for us.”
Discrimination in French cinema comes from the production system, says Zadi, with TV channels financing films and backing comedies with the same faces. He notes that “Tout simplement noir” was backed by Canal Plus and Gaumont, but “none of the free-to-air channels put money in it.”
However, any discussion of racial equality through positive discrimination or quotas — practical measures that have gained traction through the Black Lives Matter movement — is perceived by some as an attempt to import an American model of inclusion that’s unsavory to French society, suggests Rebecca Zlotowski, director of “Les Sauvages” and co-founder of the organization 50:50 Future (formerly known as 50/50 by 2020), which in 2019 convinced the country’s main industry guilds to sign a parity and diversity pledge for inclusion in the film and TV industries.
“There is a political awakening happening, and it clashes with a rise of anti-Americanism,” explains Zlotowski. “Some people in France feel ostracized and are pushing back with an elaborate rhetoric, claiming France’s model of universalism is an anti-racism weapon when in fact it breeds inequalities.”
Crucially, a key impediment to progress around Black representation is a lack of measurement tools. Coupled with a reluctance to set quotas based around ethnicity or race, counting minorities in any form is taboo in France, as is the word “race” itself — a legacy of the country’s republican model, which calls for a devotion to the “unity and indivisibility of the republic.” In recent years, the French constitution has been revised to allow affirmative action for women and disabled people, but not for ethnic groups.
When Variety contacted France’s National Film Board (CNC) for data on diversity in the entertainment industry, the organization said it couldn’t comply.
“The CNC doesn’t have to give its opinion on the matter,” reads a statement from the body. “Moreover, we don’t have statistics on visible minorities because it’s forbidden by the [data protection body] CNIL, which bans the gathering of personal data showing — directly or indirectly — the racial or ethnic origins; political, philosophical or religious opinions; [union affiliations]; or health or sexual orientation of people.”
While around 52% of the French population is nonwhite, according to France’s broadcasting authority, CSA, the body’s latest survey reveals that out of 37,800 people who appeared on French TV over a period of two weeks in 2019, only 15% were “perceived as non-white” — half of whom were “perceived as Black.” The share is down from 17% in 2018 and 16% in 2016.
But younger consumers in France are looking for movies and TV to depict a more accurate reflection of their world. “A lot of people are in denial that things must change, but the new generation demands it,” says Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent anti-racism activist who recently directed the documentary “Where Are the Blacks?”
“They want shows with more women, with LGBT characters. Netflix has taken note,” adds Diallo. “They are commissioning all this content created by and starring minorities. And by looking at the number of subscribers they’ve got, it works. French producers and TV channels have completely missed the boat.”
The last time France saw meaningful anti-racism agendas in media, politics and the film and TV industry was in the aftermath of the 2005 protests against racism and police brutality. The impetus behind the demonstrations, which led the government to put France under a state of emergency, was a police raid that led to the deaths of two youths in a housing project. It resulted in three weeks of civic unrest, which went on to inspire Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated film “Les Misérables.”
“The revolts scared people, and they were forced to listen. We saw some progress in the following years,” says Diallo. Then-President “Jacques Chirac demanded that TV channels bring in more minorities in front of and behind the screens, and broadcasting authorities CSA also questioned the existence of minorities in the media for the first time.”
But since then, not much has changed.
“For the most part, Black characters are invisible. Why is that? Because producers and distributors maintain the status quo and work in closed circuits,” says Diallo.
Omar Sy’s 2012 César win for his leading role in Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s smash hit comedy “The Intouchables” was a major milestone. The film became the highest-grossing French film at home and abroad with a global box office of $426.6 million. “It proved that a Black actor could be bankable,” says Diallo.
But it’s telling that Sy, who is one of the rare French celebrities to have publicly supported Justice for Adama and Black Lives Matter, left France for Los Angeles shortly after the success of “The Intouchables.” Although he still headlines French films, living in L.A. has allowed him to join the cast of the “X-Men” and “Jurassic World” franchises, among others. He’s currently garnering acclaim as the star of hit Netflix caper “Lupin,” produced by Gaumont Television.
Toledano, whose “The Intouchables” is just one of his movies showcasing Black and Arab actors in lead roles, says he and co-helmer Nakache “looked up to the American model” growing up.
“We didn’t have any popular representation of minorities — it was as if they didn’t exist — but when we started making films, we wanted to tell stories that reflect our contemporary society and we wrote parts for actors we wanted to see, like Omar Sy,” says Toledano, who recently took the helm of the César Academy with Véronique Cayla and has pledged to inject more diversity into the institution.
“In our film ‘Tellement proches,’ when the character of Omar Sy, who plays a doctor, is being constantly asked if there is another doctor or when people don’t believe he’s a doctor because he’s Black, that mirrors French society,” says Toledano. “When you have Black people represented essentially as thugs or drug dealers in films or TV series … what kind of representation is that? What if we showed Black characters as they are in society, being doctors, lawyers, notaries?”
With diversity quotas banned in France, advocacy groups such as 50:50 Future and “Divines” director Houda Benyamina’s 1000 Visages have worked to shine a spotlight on artists and crew members of color, as well as create jobs, internships and networking opportunities.
The organizations created databases referencing professionals — from actors and crew members to screenwriters, producers and executives — who are more likely to be discriminated against in the industry.
On top of these initiatives, film schools launched by the collective Kourtrajmé near Paris and Marseilles, under the guidance of directors including Ly, have also played a crucial role in nurturing a new generation of filmmakers from different ethnic and social backgrounds.
“There are many ways to fight, and there’s a new way of being an activist,” says Zadi. “Not many Black personalities have officially endorsed Black Lives Matter in France, but we’re doing things our own way in everyday life, and we’ll keep knocking on this glass ceiling until it cracks open.”
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