[Let me preface this article by saying I haven't seen the film in question, am curious about the discourse surrounding it.]
The film ‘Intouchables’ is a hit in France. The film, about a young black man of Senegalese descent from the projects in Bondy (a Paris suburb) who takes a job caring for a rich white quadriplegic, has drawn in millions of viewers. The film has been breaking box office records across the country and France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, loved it so much he reportedly wants invite the cast to the dinner at Elysee Palace.
But while many hail the film as a feel-good film, others are criticizing it for playing on tired racist stereotypes.
Devorah Lauter of the LA Times writes:
Yet even as the Cinderella story has audiences applauding, a few critics scolded its unrealistic take on the struggles of France’s poor, as well as its “easy stereotypes” of minorities, shown through the fun-loving hero, Driss. Driss is of Senegalese origin, and with his charming wit — but also unabashed ignorance of fine French foods, art and music — he livens up the stuffy world of his wealthy counterpart, Philippe.
“This film dates to the 1930s, when it was thought the black man has no culture and spends his time laughing at everything,” philosopher Jean-Jacques Delfour said after reviewing the film for the French daily Liberation.
Although most French critics have given the film good reviews (and French audiences LOVE it), American critics haven’t been so kind. One particularly harsh review came from Variety writer Jay Weissberg, who said the film dabbled in the worst sorts of stereotypes.
Driss [the main character] is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get “down” by replacing Vivaldi with “Boogie Wonderland” and showing off his moves on the dance floor. It’s painful to see Sy, a joyfully charismatic performer, in a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race.
The nadir comes when Driss dons a suit and Magalie tells him he looks like President Obama, as if the only black man in a suit could be the president; what’s so distressing is that the writers mean for the line to be tender and funny. (For the record, Sy and Obama look nothing alike.)
Perhaps the differences in the critiques have to do with the differences in the French and American cultures and how race is view in each.
Is France much more inclusive and accepting of diversity, or are they practicing the soft racism of a colorblind society? Or are Americans overly sensitive when it comes to issues of race and racism?
Soon American audiences may have the chance to see ‘Intouchables’ (‘Untouchables) for themselves and decide. The film’s production company, Gaumont, has sold it worldwide.