Mixed-Race Melodrama: Métisse

Métisse [Mixed-Race] (Kassovitz, France, 1993) adheres to the ethics of beur cinema by reimagining the French nuclear family as black, mixed and white through its central characters.  As a pioneering work it is flawed but, by directly engaging with issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, the film challenges the culturally embedded assumptions of its socio-historic moment and space.

Métisse [Mixed-Race] (Kassovitz, France, 1993) adheres to the ethics of beur cinema by reimagining the French nuclear family as black, mixed and white through its central characters.  As a pioneering work it is flawed but, by directly engaging with issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, the film challenges the culturally embedded assumptions of its socio-historic moment and space.

Métisse [Mixed-Race] (Kassovitz, France, 1993) adheres to the ethics of beur cinema by reimagining the French nuclear family as black, mixed and white through its central characters.  As a pioneering work it is flawed but, by directly engaging with issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, the film challenges the culturally embedded assumptions of its socio-historic moment and space.

Like Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine, Métisse visualises a France infused with Americana – various scenes feature fast food chains, basketball, drug dealing, graffiti, and hip hop.  This cross-cultural focus belies the mixed history of the French nation, and locates the film in a society and industry profoundly changed by the post-WWII period of American commercial domination.[1] Métisse’s mise en scène evades traditional Parisian tropes – key landmarks are absent and there is little philosophising or romance (only its troublesome consequences).  The protagonists are immature anti-heroes – rather than effortlessly chic intellectuals – and embody a mixed-race France. As such, they stand as a contrast to contemporaneous cinema culture – e.g. Amélie (Jeunet, France, 2001) or Les Apprentis [The Apprentices] (Salvadori, France, 1995) – where Paris is visualised through a white lens.  Métisse is a conscious attempt to rewrite the city as its ordinary inhabitants know it; to show characters driven by tangible problems rather than ennui

In Kassovitz’s film, Lola (Julie Mauduech) is a mixed-race pregnant woman who does not know which of her two lovers is the father of the child. The narrative begins with her black and white lovers coming to her apartment, where she breaks the news. As the three come to terms with this unexpected turn of events, they learn to accept one another and form an unconventional family unit. The film combines Franco-American comedy and banlieue narratives to produce an upbeat melodrama that’s central issue is interracial sex.  It can be read as a modern take on the classic ménage à trois film, Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1962), is clearly influenced by the nouvelle vague-esque Shadows (Cassavetes, USA, 1959), but also draws on Spike Lee’s ouevre, reworking elements of She’s Gotta Have It (USA, 1986).

Métisse uncovers national attitudes towards ‘race’ and class through the male leads Félix (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Jamal (Hubert Koundé), respectively white, working-class and Jewish, and black, upper class and Muslim.  They shift the dynamic of love rival narratives to issues of ‘race’, thus exposing the suppressed anxiety present in the contingent spaces where ‘race’, sexuality and gender intersect.[2] 

This anxiety is reflected in the language of Métisse’s title, form and narrative.  The opening voice-over resembles a Marie Le Pen speech in its fierce assertion of multiculturalism as “a melting pot where black and white will have no place”.  Like La Haine, Métisse begins with a shot of the globe as seen from space.  As the camera tries to box and separate areas (and a mix of overlapping radio transmissions builds), the aesthetics convey the disorientating diversity of the planet.  This global image is broken by a visual shift to Paris and an audio shift to a pro-multiculturalism rap by French hip hop group Assassin, which bookends the film.  As the camera shoots from the wheels of Félix’s bicycle, classic expectations are broken by images of feet, wheels, congestion and dirt, positioning the city as a space of conflict.  This is further expressed by his chaotic behaviour; Félix almost crashes into the cab carrying Jamal, drops his bike, and then forces his way into the tiny lift up to Lola’s apartment with both it and Jamal. By contrast, Jamal is unmoved by the driver screaming abuse at Félix, tips generously, wears polished shoes and a tailored suit, and guesses the door code which a panicked Félix cannot remember.

The opening track, La Peur du Métissage [Fear of Racial Mixing] by Assassin, outlines ‘the phobia of mixing – which is the core of racism’ (Taguieff, 1993-4: 123) and exposes ‘the neoracist consensus of today’ (Ross, 1996: 196).  The lyrics stress the reproductive anxiety which instills a fear of racial integration: “la peur du mixing les couleurs entre les frères et les soeurs” [the fear of mixing colour between brothers and sisters].  The use of sibling rhetoric evokes the idea of French society as a multicultural family, following Appiah, and also recalls African-American slang. This challenges myths of the national body as homogeneous, an ideology key to contemporary debates about immigration. Paul Gilroy observes that:

A form of cultural racism which has taken a necessary distance from crude ideas of biological inferiority now seeks to present an imaginary definition of the nation as a unified cultural community.… It constructs and defends an image of national-culture, homogenous in whiteness yet precarious and perpetually vulnerable to attack from enemies within and without (1987: 49-50).

French cinematic representations of an unhyphenated homogenous white nation, also common to America, are a reflection of ‘a mythic monoculturalism that exists only in ethnocentric imagination’ (Bost, 2003: 2).  Métisse unpacks these myths and reveals a mixed-race legacy.  Lola is Française and Martiniquaise, coloniser and colonised, white and black; as signified by her indivisible love for the two men. Félixis the grandson of Jews who survived Nazi Germany while Jamal is the son of immigrants from the former French colonies in West Africa.  Each protagonist rearticulates the history of (la plus grande) France, as one of diversity, racial mixing and integration. 

Through his combination of African-American and Jewish iconography in Félix’s representation – who wears his yarmulke with hip hop outfits – Kassovitz unites these two ethnicities in a common experience of exclusion.[3]  Fanon (1986) referred to the Jew as a brother in misery to the black man and observed that anti-semitic people are also generally anti-black.[4]  Thus Métisse, like la Haine (whose only white protagonist, Vinz is of Jewish heritage), highlights the similarities between different forms of racism in France and draws parallels of oppression between the communities affected.[5]  Like Mauvaise foi, a film which explores the relationship between a pregnant French Jewish woman and her Franco-Maghrebi Muslim husband, these films reflect the ‘common history of exclusion binding Blacks, Jews and Arabs’ (Shohat and Stam, 1994: 191), deriving from anti-semitism, slavery, colonialism, the ratonnades[6] and so on.

Lola is a free-floating signifier with multiple horizons who asserts the right to choose and shift her identity over time.  Still, her parents’ separation – as well as the fact that her mother is absent and her father is not explicitly introduced to the audience – reinforces the popular idea that interracial marriage does not work.  This is further emphasised by her lovers’ constant recourse to racial epithets and her white lover’s initial rejection of her after a DNA report lists him as the father.[7]  Yet, the middle generation is absent in each family presented (a signifier perhaps of post-war national trauma), and the narrative ultimately proves the notion of interracial incompatibility to be false.

[1] The Americanisation of France is a central theme of several nouvelle vague films, including Jean-Luc Godard’s classic A Bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960). Métisse’s mixed protagonist Lola’s (Julie Mauduech) characterisation can be traced back to the titular character of Lola (Demy, France, 1961), a film which reimagined ideas of family, love, sex and womanhood.  Demy’s film follows a single mother and cabaret performer, with several lovers, who firmly believes that the father of her child – her one true love – will return one day. Both Lolas are caught in the gender dialectic of the feminine as Madonna/whore; idealised by beauty and innocence but demonised by sexual deviancy and selfishness.

[2] This exposition also occurs in Mauvaise foi [The Wrong Time] (Zem, France/Belgium, 2006).  When Clara (a French-Jewish woman), falls pregnant, she and her partner Ismaël, a French-Maghrebi man (played by Zem), fight over Jewish/Maghrebi iconography almost ending their relationship due to anti-mixed-race peer pressure and cultural anxiety. 

[3] Since 2004, the French government has banned all overtly religious dress, including skullcaps, turbans, headscarves, veils and large crucifixes, in public schools. In 2010, this was extended to criminalise those covering their faces with veils in public spaces. This ban is part of the French secular politic and aims to keep government and religion separate. It has caused great controversy and led to accusations of state racism.

[4] See also The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove, 1965).  Here X compares the assimilation of African-Americans (from an African to American identity), to that of the Jews in Germany, pre-, during and post-Nazi era, thus likening it to annihilation. He argues that intermarriage, along with adaptations to the dominant culture such as changing religion or name, results in a: ‘mixed, diluted and weakened, ethnic identity’ (277-8).

[5] See also Jewish African-American Laurence Mordekhai Thomas’ book Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust (1993).

[6] The ratonnades [rat hunts] occurred in Algeria during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). In order to destroy the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale [National Liberation Front], a socialist political party fighting for independence from France), French units were sent on ratonnades, missions designed to threaten, dismantle and displace native communities (derogatively referred to as rats). Allegedly, these missions were unauthorised but carried out with the passive cooperation of the French police. Algeria had been ‘assimilated into the territory of metropolitan France in 1848, for its European settlers it was not a colony but, rather, an integral part of Greater France’ (Barclay, 2013, p. 15). Barclay notes that the Algerian war of independence resulted in France’s ‘most bloody and painful episode of decolonisation’ (ibid). After a long period of denial, France finally recognised the Algerian war in 1999 and several films since then have explored the torture and violence that was deployed by the French, e.g. see Le Trahison [The Betrayal] (Faucon, 2005, France/Belgium, 2005), Mon colonel [My Colonel] (Herbiet, France/Belgium, 2006) and L’Ennemi intime [Intimate Enemy] (Siri, France, 2007).

[7] It is important to note that even though one is identified as the biological father both men continue to support Lola and the unborn child, acting as fathers-to-be, and Lola frequently reminds them that “we” – all three – are going to be parents.

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