La Haine (1995)
Mathieu Kassovitz’s film follows a day in the life of Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd, friends of Jewish, West African, and Maghrebi descent, respectively, from an impoverished suburb of the capital, who acquire a police handgun in the aftermath of a riot. This was the first time that the banlieues had been a setting for a mainstream film and what most French cinema-goers saw took them totally by surprise. The film went on to become a global hit and even now, more than 20 years later, it remains highly regarded by critics.
Paris, je t’aime (2006)
The 18 short films of this two-hour anthology are set in different Parisian arrondissements and concern their own characters and dramas, though they are all linked by the theme of love. Four of the contingent touch upon the experience of minorities in the capital, though all of the five-minute segments are more concerned with celebrating the diversity of filmmaking techniques among its high-profile directors. The film was well-enough reviewed to spawn two sequels set in New York and Rio.
The Class (2008)
Directed by Laurent Cantet, this semi-autobiographical film is based on lead actor François Bégaudeau’s experience as a teacher of French language and literature in an inner city high school. It is the somewhat familiar tale of the idealistic teacher versus the kids from the tough side of town without the usual pitfalls of films like Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007). It won the Palme d’Or in 2008 and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Neuilly Yo Mama! (2009)
Gabriel Julien-Laferrière’s study of social inequality by means of comedy focusses on Sami Benboudaoud, a beur (of North African descent) teenager who leaves the housing projects of Chalon-sur-Saône to live with his aunt in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. For the majority of its gags, France’s cinematic answer to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air takes aim at the privileged white residents of one of the country’s most affluent neighborhoods and their pre-conceived ideas about Arab youths.
Tout ce qui brille (2010)
In Géraldine Nakache and Hervé Mimran’s film about social mobility and female friendship, Nakache and co-star Leila Bekhti play working-class women from the relatively well-to-do banlieue of Puteaux, home to Paris’ financial district, La Défense, who fall in with a crowd from the 16th arrondissement. At first, they feel like they have been welcomed into this world of wealth and status with open arms only to find that it remains a world away despite being just on the other side of the Bois de Boulogne.
Bacon on the Side (2010)
This romantic comedy is a fictionalized account of director Anne Depétrini and male lead Ramzy Bedia’s relationship and the clash of cultures they witnessed between their Christian and Muslim families. Anne Marivin plays Justine Lacroix, a TV journalist, who falls madly in love with Djalil Boudaoud, an ER surgeon. While it was praised for representing mixed couples not often seen in French film, and for avoiding most clichés that come with the territory, critics felt it was let down by less-than-innovative visual storytelling.
The Intouchables (2011)
Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s film about an unlikely friendship between Omar Sy’s ex-con turned live-in nurse and François Cluzet’s paraplegic aristocrat is France’s second highest grossing film ever. Despite its exceptional commercial success, it split critical opinion down the middle, with the line falling somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. In the States, it was largely viewed as an unnecessary rehashing of stereotypes whereas in its home country it was seen as a metaphor for the shifting dynamic of France’s white and immigrant populations.
Céline Sciamma’s third film in her unintentional trilogy about youth follows Marieme, played by Karidja Touré, a young woman from the banlieues who’s let down by the education system and drawn towards a life of petty crime. In promoting the film, Sciamma highlighted the fact that her focusing on the experience of black teenagers, a typically sidelined group in French society (and cinema), was no accident and that the entirely black cast was assembled with street scouting due to the absence of actors of color from the nation’s drama schools.
Serial (Bad) Weddings (2014)
This comedy from Philippe de Chauveron, the basic premise of which is that four sisters marry four men of different religions and races to the confusion and upset of their rich, white, Catholic parents, raised many of the same stereotyping issues as The Intouchables but, given the difference in tone, the English-language reviews were substantially more damning (it was even banned from UK distribution). Nevertheless, it was a box office smash in France, the difference in reaction seeming to be that making fun of cultural differences is alright here so long as everyone is laughing at each other.
Jacques Audiard’s crime drama tells how three Tamil refugees attempt to make a new life together in France. The title character is played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who, as a former child soldier, advised Audiard and his writing partners, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, on the accuracy of their script. The film won the Palme d’Or in 2015 and was nominated for nine Césars. However, it came in for some criticism for its excessively violent portrayal of life in the Parisian suburbs, which some saw as further stigmatizing the people and places it had placed center stage.
Il a déjà tes yeux (2017)
In this comedy, a black couple adopt a white baby and learn to cope with the reactions of their families and society. Its director Lucien Jean-Baptiste also stars as new dad Paul and Aïssa Maïga gives a cracking turn as Salimata, who is particularly nervous about introducing their bundle of joy to her Senegalese parents. It’s uncertain whether the film will be picked up by UK and American distributers but it has received positive reviews in its first few weeks in French cinemas. Though, as we know, what works here as far as onscreen diversity is concerned, doesn’t always translate.