On April 6, 1993, Makome M’Bowole, a youth of Central African descent, was shot in the head at point blank range while handcuffed to a radiator in a Paris police station. The police called it an “accident.” There had been hundreds of these so-called accidents since the 1980s around Paris and its low-income suburbs – known as banlieue districts. Needless to say, these senseless deaths at the hands of bonehead cops repeatedly led to rioting and birthed an unbearable tension between immigrant youths and the police.
This volatile banlieue society is captured in Mathieu Kassovitz‘s landmark 1995 film, La Haine. An eruptive and stylistically beautiful film, La Haine looks at one day in the life of three kids from immigrant families living in a working-class banlieue housing project outside of Paris. Vinz the Jew (Vincent Cassel), Saïd the Arab (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Hubert the African (Hubert Koundé) are all recovering after a night of heavy rioting. During the previous night’s chaos, a friend of the boys, Abdel, was shot by a cop and is in critical condition in Paris. One other possibly explosive thing happened the night before: a cop lost his gun. And Vinz found it.
The three friends travel from the projects to central Paris getting in various mixes with police and other youths along the way. Early on in their journey it’s easy to see that race doesn’t mean a damn thing to these kids. While it may mean everything to the police and the society who has marginalized them, Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd are unified in their alienation, resentment, and anger. Vinz may be the most angry – he fantasizes about blowing away a cop and now he’s got the gun to make it happen. Hubert, whose boxing gym was destroyed in the night’s riot, is the most level-headed – a product of having to be the man of the house at an early age. And Saïd is stuck on the fence.
While the three actors have gone on to successful careers, they were unknown at the time. Vincent Cassel is now one of the most interesting actors working today. Saïd Taghmaoui has been in a ton of movies and TV shows, including Lost. And according to one of the special features on the Criterion Collection‘s Blu-ray release, we can all thank Hubert Koundé for coining the word “parkour.” Kassovitz, an accomplished actor in his own right, appears in the film as a skinhead, because what’s a movie about urban race relations without a skinhead.
Kassovitz shot the film in a style reminiscent of the Italian realists but with lots of flare thrown in. Think Luchino Visconti if he’d watched too much MTV. The style never takes away from the substance though – instead it emphasizes the scope and sprawl of the projects and Paris. From the legendary opening shot of the molotov hitting the earth to the crushing close-up of Saïd that closes the film, La Haine is a visual feast. The stunning helicopter shot over the projects while a DJ cuts KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police” is the only helicopter shot in film history that’s worth a damn.
It’s a very funny film too. There’s an unshakable sense of humor that develops out of oppression and Kassovitz injected his film with perfectly timed bits of comedic relief. But no amount of humor can crack the power of the images onscreen. As fun as it is to watch Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd take the piss out of one another, the clock is still ticking. From the moment Vinz shows off his newly acquired revolver, it’s apparent this day isn’t going to end well.
The Criterion’s release features a wealth of special features, including a fantastic feature length documentary about the making of the film and its legacy. That one feature is worth the price of the disc alone. The actors and Kassovitz explain how they lived in the projects for two months in order to be accepted by the residents and not be seen as intruders with cameras. Their discussion on the Cannes experience is infuriating. The amount of misrepresentation thrown upon La Haine almost seems like a joke – every moronic media droogie portrayed it as promoting violence and 100 percent anti-police. There’s also a feature in which sociologists discuss the film’s banlieue setting, an introduction by Jodie Foster (who championed the film in America), production footage (in color!), deleted scenes, and commentary by Kassovitz. And, of course, the wizards at Criterion gave it the best high-def transfer possible. Black and white never looked so crisp.
10 years after its release, the sun hasn’t set on La Haine. The riots in the Paris suburbs in 2005 brought the debates put forth by the film back into the public conscious. Kassovitz got into a heated back-and-forth online with minister of the interior Nicolas Sarkozy, who infamously referred to he rioters as “scum.” You can read transcripts of the exchange over at the Criterion’s website. The La Haine Blu-ray is out now and is also available in a 2-disc DVD edition.- Patrick Cooper