A “blackfaced” French film seen through American eyes


Bastille Day celebrates fraternity, among other values, but only some… paler… citizens feel that love, even in the 21st-Century.  Bias remains a pillar of French culture, at least through American eyes.  The suburban immigrant uprisings in 2005 told or reminded us of that.

As we look at this anniversary of the French revolution let’s pose a difficult, sensitive question: what about the brown, black, or beige French people?  Let’s consider a recent French film that has shoved this topic, and the more awkward questions of black face in our faces.

Let’s consider that the filmmaker, Safy Nebbou, cast the title character of a French film, about a multiethnic French literary icon, Alexandre Dumas, with white French acting icon Gerard Depardieu.

That makes you raise your eye brows and ask, “hunh?!”  Mr. Dumas wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and “The Three Musketeers,” and other seminal literary works.  His grandfather was black.

This film The Other Dumas, entered theaters five months ago, in February.  The film  which is « L’Autre Dumas » in French, considers Dumas’ principal collaborator, Auguste Maquet.  It’s not a conventional biographic film.  It raises questions about whether we should see Dumas and Maquet as an iconic literary duo instead of leaving Mr. Dumas’ legacy to hold the lot of it.

Gerard Depardieu as Alexandre Dumas, an ethnically mixed, French literary icon

Both French and North American peoples consider and respond to questions about diversity in very different, even disparate, ways: in the U.S., we track a near myriad of statistics in regards to color, and rarely and barely have conversations that lead us to shrink the stark social boundaries that divide us.  The French handle it very differently.  Their government keeps no official statistical records about ethnic or “racial” groups.  They are convinced that that defies the objective of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, their ideal, without regard to your color.  Most Americans probably find this bizarre, awkward, and even ghastly.

This will tell you a lot about the respective characters and outlooks of France’s and North America’s cultures; France trusts (and expects) citizens to know right and act right.  The United States has little such trust or expectation.

La Fête de la Fédération (Bastille Day) is an instructive hour to pose awkward questions about the realities of that haven, which many non-French people expect to find in France.

A likeness of Mr. Dumas himself

Mr. Depardieu, who has no African ancestry, and didn’t wear burnt cork, the black face material, but reportedly he did “blacken up.”

One English writer’s conservative point of view proposes a rational approach instead of an emotional one.  In writing for the “London Telegraph,” Patrick West, a free-lance writer he said, “Sometimes ‘blacking up’ can have no racist intent, even if people are determined to detect it.”  In “Why ‘blacking up’ white actors isn’t necessarily racist,” he elaborated that, as long as the “portrayals didn’t aim to perpetuate ethnic stereotypes,” we should not take offense.

Marcia Dawkins, a media scholar with California State University – Fullerton, has been considering the Dumas question also.  She has been writing about a recent trend in film casting: passing for mixed. In response to Mr. West’s stance, Prof. Dawkins said, by-phone, that Mr. West isn’t completely off, “but it ignores the complex history…  We need to be more sensitive to how” these subtle and very sensitive questions are dealt with.

When people see that Depardieu used a contemporary version of black face, rancor easily follows.  The word mistrel pops to mind.  Prof. Dawkins understood this easily: “I definitely think it is to some degree.  It’s not the same as minstrelsy.   It’s like a first or second cousin of it.”  Just because you can take a cool, rational approach to this, “…that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cool..,” Dawkins said

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