This impressive debut film of the black French filmmaker Ladj Ly, Les Miserables, is an incendiary provocative drama.
It casts a light on France’s police racism and corruption, squalid housing projects, racial oppression and youth driven revolt.
The relation to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name is that the original Les Miserables is set in the director’s home suburb Montfermeil.
By doing so, Ly audaciously calls out the similar dire social conditions and celebrates the power and energy of the Parisians that the rich spurn.
Les Miserables begins with black boys from the housing projects celebrating France’s World Cup victory focussing on the key protagonist—a young tearaway, Issa.
They are glorious and joyful scenes of multiracial unity that are to be severely tested by the grim reality of their lives on the estate.
The following scenes astutely portray a series of observational vignettes of the boys’ surroundings.
We see a mainly North African community run by various forces on the street. The Muslim Brotherhood try to control the kids and keep them on track.
There’s also a charismatic ex con turned spiritual leader, a corrupt “Mayor” who runs the market place stalls and other gangster factions.
Then there are the cops—who are the narrative’s focus—that patrol and mindlessly harass the black community.
The nasty bully and bigot Chris revels in his nickname Pink Pig while his black sidekick Gwada tolerates his excesses.
They’re joined by the new cop on the block, the naive, honest and more orthodox policeman, Stephane.
The relative calm is broken when Issa steals a lion cub from a circus. The Romana circus crew threaten to instigate a racially charged “war” with the Mayor if he doesn’t retrieve the cub.
The police fear a conflagration, in the same manner as the three weeks of riots in and are determined to track down Issa.
This is assured filmmaking from Ly, confidently orchestrating vividly realised action scenes, controlling the pace and ratcheting up the tension.
He also ably manages a narrative that focuses on the police and yet our sympathies purposefully remain with the black youth.
In interview, Ly says, “The youth are rebelling against all form of authority. It’s not just a revolt against the police. It’s a revolt against everything, against the entire system that puts in place these figures, whether it’s the cops, the self-appointed ‘mayor,’ the drug trafficker. It’s a general revolt.”
Les Miserables portrays quite a masculine world and perhaps would have been a more truthful portrait with stronger female voices.
Nevertheless, it is reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, depicting a community as a tinderbox ready to explode from a minor flashpoint.
Closer comparisons can be made to La Haine’s urban realism (see box) and its driving stark urgency.
The film closes with a telling quote from Victor Hugo. “There are no bad plants or bad men—there are only bad cultivators.”
La Haine back in cinemas
Nearing the 25th anniversary of La Haine’s release, Curzon is showing the film again in a number of its cinemas.
Opening with real newsreel footage, La Haine follows a day in the life of three young men in the aftermath of an anti-police riot on their Paris estate.
Their friend Abdel was beaten by police—the act of brutality that sparked the riot—and is now in hospital fighting for his life.
Vinz is constantly furious and insists he’ll have revenge if Abdel dies. Hubert wants to escape but can’t see a way out. Said is just trying to get by. All of three of them hate the police—and the cards they’ve been dealt—viscerally.
It’s not just the subject of police brutality that makes La Haine still relevant. It’s also that the three friends all seem to be suffocating.
On the estate, they can stay stuck inside their overcrowded flats, or hang around outside and be harassed by police. Away from the estate, they’re met with hostility and danger wherever they go.
Their simmering anger boils over at every humiliation and police beating. But they’re trapped in a system that forces escalating violence upon them.
Africa Turns The Page: The Novels That Shaped A Continent
Available now on BBC IPlayer
Shortlists for the world’s major literary prizes are packed with African authors, while novelists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have become international celebrities.
In this fascinating and insightful film, Nigerian-born presenter and historian David Olusoga explores the incredible story of the African novel.
From the 1950s, as African nations fought for independence, writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka wrote for a continent. Often they paid a personal price for speaking out against colonialism and corruption.
In their wake, the African novel was to spread around the world, with writers of the African diaspora such as Buchi Emecheta and Ben Okri.
The programme features interviews with novelists working today.
We hear from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aminatta Forna and 2019 Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo.
The documentary features archive of the key novelists and contributions from leading figures whose lives were touched by their writing.
Starts 9pm, Wed 16 Sept on BBC1
This is the latest series of the Bafta award-winning documentary Ambulance.
Filmed in the autumn of 2019, the cameras focus on a whole new cast of characters drawn from the staff of the London Ambulance Service.
Call handler Abbie is taking an emergency 999 call for a patient having a seizure at work. Mandy, one of 24 dispatchers on duty, immediately sends crewmates Kayleigh and Lauren to help.
Ambulance crew Kate and Femi are dispatched to a young man who is struggling to breathe.