Bad-ass breakdancing, a brief relief from all that tension!
La Haine (Hate) is specific to French racial relations, but its themes of youth, poverty and inevitability of violence are universal. From West Side Story to A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints to Tsotsi, these films show us how a thousand details can tip the balance and cause a flashpoint; how angry young men living in poverty, even as they try desperately to avoid it, can seem wrapped up in violence. It is as if these young men too are helpless spectators, watching their own rush to a violent death. A line that is repeated several times in La Haine is:
Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good... so far so good... so far so good. How you fall doesn't matter. It's how you land!
That sums up the protagonists' fate: they are falling headlong to their doom, and they can do nothing but try to ease their way down with joints and hip-hop. All three main characters - Hubert (Hubert Koundé), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Vinz (Vincent Cassel) - know that there is no way out of the projects, even as they dream of it. Society is against them: the police and bourgeoise their enemies. In this tense environment, misunderstandings can be fatal. At one point in the film, a young kid is telling the three tough guys a story about a celebrity, thinking he was on Candid Camera, overreacting to an autograph-seeker to the point of coming to blows. The story once again rings true for Hubert, Saïd and Vinz: they are puppets to their fate, and they are quick to see aggression where there is none. In Vinz's case, they are even willing to create their oppression as a way of creating an identity out of it.
The excellent Vincent Cassel.
Of course, La Haine is also a commentary on the racism and classism of post-colonial France. The film opens with Saïd, the son of Arab Muslim immigrants. Saïd is the pragmatic peacemaker of the three: more interested in making cash and getting laid than any ideological clash. He is also the most boyish. Hubert is of West African descent, and he is the most mature. He dreams of escaping the projects and he recognizes most clearly that there is no way out. Vinz is Jewish and the most ideological. Throughout the film, Vinz constantly talks big about how he's going to kill a token cop if Abdel (the poster child for the rioting which encompasses the film, a young French Arab who is beaten into a coma by the cops) dies in the hospital. Hubert and Saïd are less interested in abstract revenge and they disagree with Vinz's bloodlust. Indeed, we get the vibe that Vinz is overcompensating for his whiteness: while French anti-semitism is well-known, Vinz's minority status is hidden by his melanin. While Hubert and Saïd are regularly targeted - they are arrested, beaten, attacked by skinheads - Vinz is always frantic to get involved, always eager to prove his street cred and show that he, too, is a victim and wants to fight back.
If we concentrate on the racial question, this film would make an interesting addition to a course on Franco-colonial relations: first, 1966's The Battle for Algiers, then this, followed by 2005's Caché. This film fits just as easily into documenting urban youth and hip-hop culture, in which case it could sit side by side with Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.
A day in the life.
But apart from what the film tries to say, it's also very satisfying in how it looks. The choice of black and white film over color could be for a number of reasons: the moral dichotomy and shades of gray involved in the cops versus rioters situation, the black/white racial dichotomy, or just because it looks cool. As with Raj Kapoor's Awaara or Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, this would probably suffer if it was done in color: the filmmakers are just so good at giving the black and white textures and meaning! Furthermore, the moments showing us the time give the story a ticking time-bomb quality. We keep waiting for something awful to happen (and yes, it does). Yet even as the explosion looms closer and closer, we see how dull and empty Hubert, Saïd and Vinz's daily life can be. They prowl the streets, desperate for something to do. They talk about nothing and get high. It's obvious that they're unsatisfied, and it's obvious that they're trapped.
Given the recent riots in 2005, the film remains a timely look at one of France's big problems, and it makes the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, who called men like Hubert, Saïd and Vinz "thugs" and "scum", especially frightening. Hubert's words seem especially relevant: "Who's the asshole? In school we learned that hate breeds hate."