Set in an indoor basketball playing space, the film features two young adult characters: a skinny white boy (Kassovitz) who fancies the girl; an athletic black girl (Fabienne LaBonne) who appears indifferent to the white boy. It is a comedy without dialogue which relies on the cinematic language of silent films and privileges visual techniques over narrative.
Kassovitz’s first short film, Fierrot le pou (1990) – a pun on Pierrot le fou (Godard, 1965) – features the white director-actor performing an early version of the shifty comic character who would become Félix in his debut feature Métisse (1993). The narrative is set against a simple backdrop, an empty basketball court where he waits for his dream woman, a black basketball player. On the court she shines while he fails. The black and white cinematography enhances their racial, sexual and athletic difference (and references the white lens of the 1960s nouvelle vague). While they share the same passion, they exist in separate worlds.
The two basketball players practice their sport at either end of the court and exchange no words. Thus the film’s score only features the (enhanced) sounds of the court. As they play at separate hoops they glance over at each other; she laughs sweetly at his inept playing and he marvels, from the sidelines, at how accomplished and attractive she is (thus performing a traditionally feminised role). Their mutual interest seems like coy flirtation but one isn’t sure if she is bemused by his lack of ability, or enticed by his awkward charisma. Her giggles could be read as mean or seductive.
She is visualised as more traditionally masculine than him; stronger and bigger, with more stamina and more athletic ability. By contrast he fumbles for his ball, giggles and takes regular breaks. His characterisation is somewhere between early Spike Lee and Woody Allen, awkward, aspirational and desperate. Feeling emasculated, he imagines himself as a taller and more muscular black man (Alain Brena Labinsky) and his hallucination overtakes the frame, moving at double speed, propelling the air with his athleticism (accompanied by the sound of helicopter blades), cheered on by an invisible crowd. His glasses remain but on the more capable black player they come to signify the attractive intellectualism of Superman’s alter-ego. Through blackness the white character thus actualises and subverts the ideal; becoming a seductive, sporty hero who gets the girl.
The dream sequence is a recurring motif in Kassovitz’s early films (Fierrot le pou (1990), Métisse (1993), La Haine (1995)), utilised to explore hidden elements of the white male protagonist’s psyche (and to highlight the salience of race to minoritized communities through an emphasis on its violent, cultural construction). Here, he not only finds great pleasure in imagining himself as black, he gains social access through transracial identification (drawing on the narrative of Jewish assimilation through American blackness in The Jazz Singer (1927)). As in all of Kassovitz’s films, while he highlights the differences between the two men – emphasised by the black and white colour scheme – he ultimately focuses on their similarities, their shared passions and desires, alluding to a certain Republican fraternity which is itself illusory.
As Fierrot le pou ends the white boy returns from the ethnic fantasy to find himself back in his diminutive body. Getting the ball stuck behind the hoop confirms his reversion to the comic subject of the girl’s pity. The unreachable ball serves as a metaphor for his position as a white man; athleticism, the black girl, hyper-masculinity and popular adulation are all beyond his reach, like his fantasy. This both undermines established racial hierarchies (privileging black bodies and their talents) and reaffirms embedded racist stereotypes (the exoticism of the black female, the black male’s reduction to the physicality of blackness – undermined in Métisse by Jamal’s (Hubert Koundé) inability to play popular sports – as a symbol of hypermasculinity, ‘a penis symbol’ (Fanon, 1986)).
Kassovitz’s first short is a playful and engaging comedy which delights in the creative possibilities of filming a subject in an otherwise empty space. It is a theatrical yet personal work whose themes would shape Kassovitz’s 1990s films; intersecting narratives of race, class and sex. As such it forms part of what became known as the ‘beur new wave’ representing the concerns of young, disillusioned, marginalised characters; a cinematic reimagination of France as black, beur et blanc. This was an activist film movement, established with the objectives of representing an underrepresented and misrepresented community, appealing for social change and addressing problems of national identity, exclusion and integration. It took an international approach, drawing on American and African cinema and politics, European minority discourses of language and identity, and a variety of other influences including, as Phil Powrie (1999) notes, the work of Ken Loach. Kassovitz’s ‘90s films would become central to the beur cinema movement though, as a white middle-class Jewish Frenchman, he was later criticised for gaining critical and commercial success through what had begun as an ethnic minority creative collective. In the 2020 satire, Tout simplement noir (Zadi & Wax) Kassovitz revisits this enduring criticism, playing a liberal director blind to his own ignorance as he dismisses an actor who fails to perform an Africanness which Kassovitz’s colonialist imagination deems authentic.