Opinion Piece - La Haine and Regrettable Relevancy
As part of his frenetic media tour when promoting Parasite, there was a particularly dry answer Bong Joon-Ho gave to a question. The audience member was talking about a flooding scene in the film and asking if it was perhaps created as a response to some of the massive floods the US had seen over the last few years. His answer? "We have floods in Korea too". Aside from it being a wonderfully witty story about a man the entire world now loves, it's also a really telling example of how a brilliant film can feel like it was made specifically for the moment you're watching it in, even when that couldn't possibly have been the intention. That is the current mood around La Haine, a film that is 25 years old this year and unfortunately, it feels just as relevant today as it did when I first saw it in 2016 and I can only imagine it feels even more urgent than it did in 1995.
For the uninitiated (and I strongly recommend initiating yourself with this wonderful film), La Haine is a story about three young men living in the French suburbs referred to as the banlieue. The night before we meet them there were riots in the city, a police officer lost his gun and one of their friends was beaten up so badly that he's now on life support. Together, Saïd, Vinz and Hubert walk around their part of the world surveying the damage, enjoying their day and eventually making their way to Paris to try and get some money Saïd is owed. The plot itself isn't really important, as it just focuses on characters and their relationships with each other and their environment. From this point of the blog on though, I want to discuss more of the details of the film, which will include the ending. If you haven't seen La Haine, I'd strongly suggest you go away and watch it because, as I'm about to explain, it's going to feel like it came out only yesterday.
None of these characters are violent people or interested in a criminal lifestyle, but the world they are forced into allows for nothing else.
Much of the film, as I was saying, is strangely laid back, but the ticking clock keeps us on edge; what is the clock counting down to? In the final fifteen minutes, events that were set up earlier begin to fall into place. Abdel, the victim of police brutality, dies in the early hours of the day, forcing Vinz to decide if he'll carry through with his threat of getting even with the police by killing one of them. The three men take a skinhead hostage and Vinz holds him at gunpoint while Hubert baits him into taking the shot. Vinz can't though. Despite the show he puts on for everyone, he isn't tough and couldn't end a life in the way the police did. He hands his gun to Hubert when they return to the banlieu and is ready to walk back to his life, when he and Saïd are ambushed by police, one of who accidentally kills Vinz. Hubert, armed with Vinz's gun, aims at the officer, the camera pushes into Saïd's face and an offscreen gunshot ends the film. Whoever it was that pulled the trigger, a life has been ruined.
This ending is where the immense power of the film lies, something you really appreciate when seeing it with an audience. The first ninety minutes have laughter, a bit of playful gasping and a sense that whatever happens to our characters, it will all be alright in the end. From nowhere, this ending arrives and cuts everything short. It also demonstrates the structural power of racism in western society. All of our leads are a minority of some sort, with Vinz being Jewish, Hubert being black and Saïd being a North African Muslim. They live in these banlieu because it's all their family can afford and as such, they are surrounded by the world of crime. It gets to the extent that they all, Vinz especially, glamorise crime, which we see both when he re-enacts Taxi Driver and when he talks about going to jail to boost his street cred. But the tragedy is, that isn't who Vinz is, that isn't who any of them are. Our introduction to Vinz demonstrates that perfectly, a dream sequence of him dancing jovially without a care in the world. None of these characters are violent people or interested in a criminal lifestyle, but the world they are forced into allows for nothing else.
Now that we've established what La Haine is, let's examine what surrounded its production. Though director Mathieu Kassovitz has said the film isn't based on any singular event, he has talked about how his inspiration for it came from a few specific incidents. The first was the murder of Makome M’Bowole who was killed in police custody when, like Vinz, he was being threatened by an officer with a gun that accidentally discharged. Another event in France that inspired Kassovitz was the murder of Malik Oussekine, a student protester who died in hospital after being beaten badly by riot police. Also used over the credits are footage of riots from the decade preceding the film being made, riots that seem far too common for a country that is so prosperous. Things that we think of as regrettably modern occurrences have been going on for decades, but we keep forgetting them, growing numb with each new trauma. There is one other piece of notable context I want to bring up before we move on though, context from America, not France. Mentioned directly in the film, this is the beating of Rodney King by police officers. This cruel event set off the 1992 LA riots, which decimated the city, much in the same way the riots depicted in La Haine do. Even when the film was being made, people in different countries were seeing the hatred of their own nations reflected in it.
Which brings us to today. A lot has happened in the last 25 years and unfortunately, not a lot of progress in this area seems to have been made. Due to the refusal of the middle classes to acknowledge how ludicrous of a concept a "post-racial" world is, people of colour have been routinely murdered or beaten by police whose power has gone totally unchecked and these incidents colour our reception when we either discover or return to La Haine. For us in the United Kingdom, we have the memory of the London Riots in 2011. I was 12 then, barely old enough to really understand why this was happening and just assumed, because the news told me so, that the rioters were thugs. Having done my own research since, that initial judgement is heart-breaking on my part. In all the anger and hatred that I was being fed, all the coverage of the reaction instead of the root, I had not realised that these riots were in response to the killing of Mark Duggan. Looking back now, of course it was. Police officers had suspicions surrounding a black man and they shot him in the chest. This is what happens. This is what always happens.
The tragedy that La Haine evokes so well is that violence against racial minorities by the police is a cyclical act.
Though police brutality dates back further than this, I think the most relevant date in the last 25 years of American hatred is 2013, when the Black Lives Matter movement was created. I did some research on this because I'm ashamed to be quite sheltered on the issue and found that even a cursory glance is depressingly bleak. BLM have protested in response to the deaths of hundreds of black people in the last six years, be it Ezell Ford, Walter Scott, Deborah Danner, Jocques Clemmons, Ahmaud Arbery, Akai Gurley or any of the other names who never get to be heard because their numbers are only increasing year upon year. BLM was a movement that got major attention in their response to the death of Eric Garner, a black man who was held in a choke hold and died saying "I can't breathe". Had you viewed La Haine in the direct wake of this, the tragedy would have been great. Watching it now however is even bleaker. Six years on from the murder of Eric Garner was the murder of George Floyd, a man killed when a police officer knelt on his neck as Floyd repeated "I can't breathe". The tragedy that La Haine evokes so well is that violence against racial minorities by the police is a cyclical act and that's a point that is unfortunately made very clear when viewing La Haine in 2020.
The refrain of La Haine is a story that Hubert tells. It's a story of a man falling from a skyscraper, falling a very long way. As he falls, the man says "so far so good, so far so good", failing to notice that, as Hubert points out, "it's not the fall that kills you. It's the landing". Throughout, it is clear that this is a parable for the film in general, but its appearance after Vinz's death makes it clear, the story changed to now be "the story of a society falling". We are in free fall right now and the ground is coming up fast, but we still have time to try and make the landing. This is the message I take away from La Haine, but you may take away something different. Aside from the fact that police officers are given too much power and consistently misuse it, the reason a film like this remains relevant so many years on is that it raises difficult questions about our prejudices and complicates our arguments, in ways that are inherently watchable and absorbing. There is not an answer in La Haine, but it offers a clear diagnosis of the problem and allows us to leave the cinema searching for solutions.
Take that anger, that desire for knowledge and educate yourself and others.
That's what I want you to leave this post doing too. If the events I've brought up have angered you or made you question the role of the police in modern society, great. Take that anger, that desire for knowledge and educate yourself and others. We should strive for a society in which an organisation like Black Lives Matter is moot, because innocent black people aren't being murdered senselessly by the people who should be protecting them. Unfortunately, it's a situation that has evolved even over the week it took me to write this post, with the recent verdict on the killing of Breonna Taylor. The police officer who murdered her has been charged with "wanton endangerment" for firing his gun in a private property, but none of the three police officers involved have been charged with any crimes connected to Taylor's actual murder. Though these sites have been shared constantly over the past few months, it still feels worth sharing the official BLM website, as well as this website that can directly take you to petitions to sign, ways to educate yourself and places where donations are needed. If we don't take action, La Haine may somehow become only more relevant with time. I love this film, but that would be a fatal landing for us all.