The following piece contains significant spoilers for the 1995 French film La Haine.
Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 crime drama La Haine is opened up by “Burning and Looting” by Bob Marly and the Wailers set over a riot in Paris. They scream the truth, that in reality they are burning the illusions that surround them. The illusion of power that has surrounded the rioters their whole lives by standing up in resistance. La Haine follows a day in the life of three French kids from unrepresented backgrounds. Hubert the boxer is Black, Saïd is Muslim, and Vinz is Jewish. They fall into categories a nationalist wouldn’t describe as “real” French. The day we witness takes place after their close friend Abdel is beaten into a coma by the police department, and the riots in the opening scene follow their friend being hospitalized. Soon after, Walmart, a friend of the three, complains about his car being burned up in the riot. Vinz is incensed that he would even bring that up and goes on a tirade yelling he could give a shit, his friend was beaten into a coma. Walmart isn’t wrong to be angry in a way but due to the French police’s decision to solve their issues with violence, he ultimately lashes out against the people in front of him instead of the system. Rather than seeing the French police’s attack on Abdel as the act that ultimately caused the damage to his car, he points at the protestors in front of him.
We’ve been hardwired to accept violence as standard our whole lives. Videos of police brutality have become completely normalized and cover the TL regularly. We’re in the middle of what appears to be an endless war in the middle east. Institutions who perpetrate violence telling those they oppress it is not an option for them are comical. When people have finally had enough and respond the only way they know how the initial reaction is quite often disgust. Broken shop fronts and burned out cars litter the opening sequence of the film as they did the news for the majority of the summer. Hubert’s own boxing gym in the neighborhood was burned down among the chaos but he doesn’t seem to be bothered by the loss. Him and Saïd share an indifference to everything unless it comes to the health of their friend. Vinz is more than happy with the public’s response given he is longing for retribution for his dear friend. The following day they engage in typical teenage activities, ‘cause ultimately life goes on. They’re hanging with the homies while being immediately criminalized by those who patrol their streets. The opening of the film might compel Americans to ask what entitled these people to break the state’s monopoly on violence with their riot? People too often get angrier at their potential monetary loss in the face of widespread riots than the initial violent outburst that preceded it. We ignore the fact that we act as we are taught. As Hubert beautifully put it, “La haine attire la haine!” “Hatred breeds hatred.” These demonstrations don’t happen for no reason, neither in Paris or in Minneapolis. The solution is simple, if the law stopped needlessly killing already marginalized people we wouldn’t be outside but it appears that’s too much to ask.
La Haine is a peek into the ground floor. Quite often we only think of the tree instead of its roots. The movie is a slow burn capturing multiple tense police encounters which only brew more disdain between citizens and officers of the law. Our main trio are always under surveillance whether they’re together or separate, it’s either the media trying to get the scoop or cops looking to flex on them. Hubert compares the relationship to animals in a zoo being watched by passersby, something many are all too familiar with due to the commodification of hood culture in the US today.
The trio all respond to the police differently despite their close upbringing. Vinz has unbridled hate for every officer whether they are helping or hindering him and vows to have his revenge for what they did to his close friend. Hubert takes the MLK approach, understanding the problem but refusing to resort to violence unless he’s attacked. Saïd lies somewhere in between these two different views serving as a moderator. While watching, I couldn’t help but think of the policing around BLM protests compared to the kid gloves given to the white Trump mob that stormed the Capitol yesterday. White people are free to cosplaying their Joker fantasies while the police ultimately continue to target Black people.
Saïd, Hubert, and Vinz don’t have the benefit of youth in the eyes of the police just as people of color in the US don’t. If they get caught doing graffiti or smoking weed they’re not suburbian troubled teens in need of a slap on the wrist. They will be viciously beaten and potentially killed. In their eyes getting locked up for years is the best case scenario when it comes to dealing with police. We see the former play out when two of the boys are taken in. Their crime: being in the nice part of Paris. They crossed the invisible line separating poverty from privilege. In the past the line wasn’t even invisible as many American cities were openly racially redlined. More than half of the US’s school children are still in racially concentrated school districts where 75% of the kids are either white or non-white as a result. Redlining was technically outlawed long ago but the residual effects are ever present. Despite La Haine taking place across the pond, the same methods of separation exist. The boy’s punishment for existing amongst whiteness is being tortured in the police station for hours. The officers speak of them like they are toys, saying they want to kill them but they must hold themselves back. These same tactics have been seen for generations in Chicago and Philadelphia where police would kidnap black youth and hook them up to car batteries or if they were lucky just beat them. The police officers in our country and in France treat the lives of these children like a game and the end result is always more conflict. And yet the media, officers, even older people of color sound dumbfounded when they ask the kids why? Why do you take to the streets? At the end of the day, these people only see the world they want to see.
One of the most interesting characters in the film was Samir, an officer who is close with Saïd’s brother and hails from the same neighborhood as the boys. There have been arguments made that if a police force reflects those it serves by being from and of those same communities, it may help the police’s relationship with their subjects. While this officer treats our trio nicely and tries to moderate he’s like a poorly constructed dam stopping a wave of terror. He tells the boys off when they try to visit their friend who was put in the hospital by his fellow officers. He says “Those officers are protecting Adel in his family, the ones who beat him will be taken care of”. This is a blatant lie, something the kids felt in the moment and something we are all too aware of because even three decades later cops assaulting and even murdering people can’t get convicted when caught on VIDEO. And if they do get a modicum of comeuppance you bet your ass they are still retiring with full benefits as we saw with the pedophile cops in Massachusetts. We also never really see what Samir is doing to stop these other cops from terrorizing the boys, and it’s hard to imagine he does much of anything. You can see the disdain these officers have for these boys when Saïd is picked up from the station. In a beautiful rotating shot we see the camera pan from the boys faces to the officers in a standoffish fashion, almost like rabid dogs waiting to be released. Regardless Samir plays his role as “one of the good ones”. Vinz while charged with rage neglects Samir’s compassion while Saïd and Hubert hesitantly accept. While Vinz desire to go on a rampage may be misplaced, he is not in the wrong to put Samir in the same box as his coworkers. Samir couldn’t save him in the end and ironically if he tried too he wouldn’t be an officer in the first place. We all know what happens to officers that report misconduct.
Another “good one” is present while Hubert and Saïd are being choked out in the police station. This cop is a rookie and all he can muster up the courage to do is look down and shake his head as his two superiors continue to abuse our main characters. He knows what’s going on is wrong but he knows he’s not going to stop it. It’s self-preservation at its finest at the potential cost of life. The same self-preservation that drives these Parisian citizens out into the street. What people don’t understand is that these riots are both a dick-measuring contest and a threat. It simply boils down to don’t fuck with us and we wont fuck with you. Thirty years later and they are still not done fucking with us. As the media and elders asked the boys in La Haine why are you rioting, so do the media and elders of today ask our youth why police violence has turned them to the streets. As beautiful and moving a movie as La Haine is, it’s nothing short of depressing that in three decades we continue to have the same struggle. Especially given yesterday’s violence in the Capitol, the intense difference between how police treat white people and non-white people could not be more apparent, there are two completely different sets of laws dependent on what you look like and the beliefs you profess. Those questioning the emotional responses to state inflicted violence need to ask themselves who actually has the power in these situations. Until an international reflection of that power dynamic between the police and those they lord over is had, I fear we may be watching La Haine through the same lens in thirty years time.