A Black and White Movie
La Haine 1995 Criterion DVD
La Haine is the “hate” of forgotten young men. Hubert, Saïd, and Vinz are no Benetton poster. African, Arab and Jewish, they connect decisively through hip-hop and the constant threat of the racist state. Hip-hop is their tutorial on manhood. Hubert’s romanticized as a samurai: strong, responsible and poetic. Like the multiculturalism of hip-hop, the black guy’s gotta be on top—automatically authentic. Saïd’s manic conversation and needed humor is most naturally written while Vinz’s tendency is to indulge in the victimization of his Arab and African friends. Vinz is the story within the story.
“The World Is Yours,” reads a passing billboard on the subway to Paris. Of a gang of three grown teenagers, Hubert is the only one to notice. He knows the words don’t add up. As immigrants of housing projects shuffled away in the poor streets of the Banlieues, the three are not of this encouraging world. How do you own something that ignores you? They tag their own billboards, like “Fuck The Police” on the back of a paddy wagon. The cops beat another Arab teenager into a coma and the projects react in outrage, destroying their own buildings and hangouts and burning down the school. A yearn for control ripens into hate and for some, self-hate.
The film in many ways could be New York. Imagine Nas in the mythic playgrounds of the war-torn Queensbridge project’s, rapping “The World Is Yours,” the likely reference behind La Haine’s billboard. Remember Giuliani and his Street Crimes Unit that shot African immigrant, Amadou Diallo 41 times. The custom humiliation of profiling continues for young Black and Latino men—out of sight, out of mind. Filming in black and white, 28 year-old Director Mathieu Kassovitz gets credit for containing the contrast. Instead of a consistent theme of polemics, he shoots a grayish, subtler shading. The film opens to the cry of “Murderers!” as documentary footage records a protester’s front line confrontation with riot police. The stark image and its vérité is shortly abandoned for the theatrical. The film fuses the frantic with the stationary. Through loud, expressively styled close-ups and movements of freeing distance, the flowing handheld camera vies with a violent atmosphere and constricting symmetry of the project’s architecture.
Criterion’s DVD, is well, Criterion. On the extensive 2nd disc of extras Kassovitz’s, the son of a Hungarian Jew himself, tells us that he and his leads took a 3-month residency in the projects to secure his ghetto pass. “I’m very happy I’m not from the projects but I’m very happy all my friends are,” he later says on the commentary track.
Underneath the exceptional lens of La Haine’s photography, its word on socioeconomics, the vivid depiction of B-boy culture, and plain ole’ visceral hate, is the insertion of Vinz. His character nails the surely autobiographical white boy desire for the other. But Kassovitz’s own words reveal something I suspected from the film: a type of tourism in Banlieues that feels quietly like slumming.
Guy Greenberg writes on film and culture. He is a student at the New School.