Claude Grunitzky on Flirting with Stereotypes

You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action?

If I were the Minister of Integration in, say, France, the first thing I would do is nudge the Minister of Education into expanding the high school curriculum by adding a weekly class on film. It might be called something like “Cinéma Vérité” and the first class of the first term would always have to be a discussion of the 2011 French film “Les Intouchables.” A runaway hit (and the subject of countless dinner table conversations) in France, “Les Intouchables” was directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. Loosely based on a true story, the film is about the unlikely friendship and uncommon bond between an upper class white man (François Cluzet) who was paralyzed from the neck down after a hang gliding accident and his newest helper, a working class Senegalese trickster (Omar Sy) who seems to have a natural way with words and gestures.

The French loved this movie, which was voted the cultural event of 2011, because it was genuine and funny, and also because it showed that friendship could and should transcend race and class. The Germans, the Austrians and the Italians loved it too, but for some not so strange reason English-speaking critics hated it. The Independent in London called it a "a third-rate buddy movie that hardly understands its own condescension.... Why has the world flipped for this movie? Maybe it's the fantasy it spins on racial/social/cultural mores, much as Driving Miss Daisy did 20-odd years ago – uptight rich white employer learns to love through black employee's life-force. That was set in the segregationist America of the 1940s. What's this film's excuse?"

A.O. Scott, the famous New York Times reviewer was even more harsh in his judgment, writing that “It is possible to summarize the experience of watching ‘The Intouchables’ in nine words: You will laugh; you will cry; you will cringe. The caricatures are astonishingly brazen, as ancient comic archetypes — a pompous master and a clowning servant right out of Molière — are updated with vague social relevance, an overlay of Hollywood-style sentimentality and a conception of race that might kindly be called cartoonish.” At the end of his review, Scott adds, “this film can only be described, in the context of French cinema and global popular culture, as an embarrassment.”

So why would I lobby the Minister of Education on behalf of this movie? Because it shows that a healthy debate on cultural diversity should be a priority for high school students, their parents and their educators. As they increasingly rely on entertainment (and less on the classics of literature) to shape their sensibilities, European students should be encouraged to openly discuss stereotypes and to express their opinions on them. When I was a high school student in a Catholic boarding school outside Paris in the 1980s, many of my fellow students would make racist jokes at my expense, but I was afraid to verbalize my anger, because I was told by my parents that as Africans we should rise above and not be vocal about issues like racism and discrimination. Times have changed. Now, immigration and diversity have become hot button issues in France and elsewhere in Europe. And even though “Les Intouchables” was just a tad too stereotypical for the world citizen in me, I welcome any debate around race, class and identity.

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

“The other” is me. Growing up in France in the 1980s and 1990s, I always felt like “the other.” When I was 14, in 1985, I read Albert Camus’s classic novel “L’Étranger” and I remember feeling like that 1942 book was written for me. In that book, Meursault, the narrator and main character, a Frenchman living in Algeria, kills an Arab after an altercation. What struck me when I read the book was that Meursault felt no remorse whatsoever after killing the Arab. And during the trial that followed his arrest, his lawyer was ill at ease because Meursault expressed no regret as he recounted the tragic chain of events that preceded the shooting. So with the upmost sincerity, Meursault revealed the nihilistic yet naïve aspects of his character.

Those very traits are the reason he is sentenced to death by guillotine, and as a teenager I wrested with the duality in his personality. How, I wondered, could a person be so sympathetic and cruel at the same time? I remember quizzing my French language teacher in school, and being provided with some interesting cues. The teacher, an erudite, affable man named Jean Ferret, told me that there had once been an Asian religion called Manichaeism, and that it had to do with the struggle between good and evil. He explained that that specific religion forced you to choose between good and evil, but that in reality life was more complicated and nuanced than that religion had once advocated.

Having grown up a strict Christian, in a very religious African family, I thought about that concept for a while as I was imagining and deciding which kind of person I would become. Having grown up on three continents, I started crafting a persona for myself around my hybrid identities and increasingly complex personality. In my later teenage years, I went through a bit of an identity crisis, because I was a black African kid coming of age in the secluded world of France’s white bourgeoisie, and also because I was a budding intellectual who found refuge in hardcore American hip hop slang. In short, I saw and expressed myself as “the other,” because I didn’t want anyone to figure me out and label me according to some pre-defined notion of identity. In retrospect, I feel like I myself was trying to figure out who I really was, and “otherness” was a comfortable denominator that allowed me to avoid simplistic classification.