La Haine and the truly great screen rebels

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I would argue that if you want to understand Black Lives Matter, watch La Haine. It was a couple of weeks after the murder of George Floyd in May that I was contacted by the British Film Institute asking if I wanted to programme a season of films around the film, to mark its 25th anniversary. With the caveat that my selections had to be available for digital projection because of coronavirus rules, I was given carte blanche to program the season how I wanted. It seemed obvious to me that the season should be about rebellion and screen rebels – but only true ones.

What I mean by ‘true’ rebels are not those that might most immediately come to mind when you cast your mind back through cinema history. That is because for a long time cinema  hoodwinked audiences into believing rebellion was about asserting one’s independence with a stylish look and lots of attitude. Whereas La Haine reminded audiences that rebellion could be about something much more profound – overthrowing systemic injustice and the status quo.

Indeed, the success and influence of the film has been so great that since La Haine, the on-screen rebel has been redefined. No longer are the great screen rebels macho white males – but instead they are women, immigrants, or homosexuals, all fighting the white male supremacy with which the old rebels were complicit. La Haine had a huge impact on French society – leading newspapers ­to discuss poverty in the outer cities and provoking politicians from President Jacques Chirac to National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to reference it – but it also changed cinema.

An explosive cinematic moment

In one of the most famous opening sequences of cinema, La Haine begins with a shot of the Earth seen from space. Nothing unusual there, until a Molotov cocktail flies towards our planet and an as yet unidentified voiceover provides an anecdote. (“Heard about the guy who fell from a skyscraper? On his way past each floor he says to himself, ‘so far, so good’, but what’s important isn’t the fall, it’s how you land.”) In a dazzling visual effect, the Earth goes up in flames.

Then it shows a montage of rioters clashing with the police. If the camera angles framing the action from the perspective of those battling the police aren’t enough to convince the viewer that the officers of the law are not the heroes here, Bob Marley’s classic resistance song Burnin’ and Lootin’ booms from the soundtrack. The song contains a lyric arguing that policemen wear “uniforms of brutality”. 

It’s only after this unapologetically biased beginning that we’re introduced to the three protagonists whose perspective on the world is about to seduce us. And what an introduction it is. It is the night after an uprising that started when a young Arab man was put into a coma by the police. Kassovitz used the 1986 death of student protestor Malik Oussekine as the template for this storyline. But he could have chosen many others. Saïd (Said Taghmaoui) is first seen writing his name and an expletive on a police van. Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is captured hitting a punchbag in the remains of a gym that was burned to the ground. Then there is Vinz (Vincent Cassel), who wakes up in bed and is hiding a revolver he has taken from a police officer the night before. 

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