They say the opposite of love is hate. Actually, that’s a sadly simplistic statement. In a current social structure overburdened with a sense of entitlement and a need for infrastructural scapegoats, it’s better to point out the even thinner line between acceptance and prejudice.
We no longer function in the purely black and white (forgive the pun) dynamic of like and dislike, delight or despise. Instead, we maintain an uneasy peace between understanding and blame. Years of philosophical reform have purged many of our most extreme beliefs from their positions as part of our personalities. In their place we have a pretense of political ‘correctness’ and a media supported mandate for tolerance and consideration.
But that doesn’t mean we’ve won the war against abhorrence. In his amazing 1995 film La Haine (simple translation: “Hate”), French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz understands that a new wave of violent anger is simmering away slowly beneath the surface of our humanity. Fueled by unemployment, government malaise, an establishment exposed as nauseatingly narrow-minded, and the uncontrollable influence of violent imagery and/or the worst of rap music, he sees an entire generation of youths disaffected and warns of the pending adolescent apocalypse. That this situation exists in the housing projects outside Paris, and not in the typical urban jungles of the US, is a conceit that carries the film farther along the spectrum of mere social commentary than your typical race-based drama. It becomes something far more universal.
In Kassovitz’s world there are three competing elements: they are simply stated as the “powerful”, the “passive”, and the “powerless”. Within that last classification sits our heroes: the ersatz activist Arab Said (Said Taghmaoui), the volatile Jewish thug wannabe Vinz (Vincent Cassel), and the confused African boxer Hubert (Hubert Kounde). They themselves represent a certain triad of issues. Hubert has tried to make things better, opening up a gym in the projects to give the wayward something to do. However in recent riots, the place had been looted and burned. Said, on the other hand, thinks that life is a series of reactions and responses. Dealing drugs as he calls for justice, he’s a contradiction of possible solutions. In essence, he is a con artist, playing all sides of the situation to his singular benefit.
And then there is Vinz. Lost in a world of Western media and pop culture, he fancies himself a hip hop hero, a warm-up suit wearing ‘brother’ who quotes De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver in the mirror as he prepares for another day. As a catalyst, Vinz represents the real element of fear in La Haine. At times, he appears directionless and disinterested. He has more in common with the unmotivated members of his district; he’s more than happy to spend his days hanging out, complaining. But there is also an element to his personality that is undeniably frightening. To call him a hothead would imply a lack of conscious. No, Vinz quite consciously wants violent, aggressive confrontation. It’s the message he’s garnered after years enveloped in the lyrics of gansta rap. All he requires is a flame to light his fuse, and the consequences will be direct – even deadly.
Such a spark arrives in the form of a policeman’s gun. The France of the mid ‘90s is a country uncomfortable with its laws controlling firearms. Our main characters argue that the people who need the weapons – the picked on and the poor – cannot possibly get them, while the powerful and privileged seem to have no problem obtaining such protection. When a cop loses his revolver in a riot, its existence in the projects becomes a kind of urban legend. Everyone, from local hoods to the street urchins who hang around the fringes, is fascinated by the possibilities of its possession. They covet its concrete decisiveness, especially in a universe of so much uncertainty and hopelessness. Naturally, it falls into the hands of the least capable of our crew, Vinz.
Thus begins a kind of caustic road movie, a series of vignettes and adventures all given a new, nasty gloss thanks to the undeniable presence of a gun. Vinz makes it clear that if a friend who was injured by police during the uprising dies while in custody, he will use his newfound firearm to take out a cop. In his illuminating commentary included on the recent Criterion DVD release of La Haine, Kassovitz argues that Vinz’s story is not a question of revenge. Instead, it is supposed to be both an examination of and an explanation of what drives violence. We are supposed to recognize both the newfound sense of worth and the inevitable streak of self-destruction that comes from owning such potential power. Basing his narrative on a famous case in which a white police officer ‘accidentally’ killed an unarmed minority suspect who was handcuffed to the station’s radiator, Kassovitz wants to employ elements of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, mainstream music video, and the images inherent in gangsta rap/hip hop culture to tell his story both visually and contextually.
His first stroke of creative genius was the decision to present the film in black and white. Color, by its very nature, offers a wide variety of hues, tones and moods. It differentiates people via the smallest iconic elements, such as skin tone and eye color. But in masterful monochrome, all those distinctions fade into variants of gray. Though Vinz, Hubert, and Said are all from different backgrounds, they appear almost equal, the difference in their outer façade merging with their inner identicalness to form one human mass of social strife. It was a decision based partly in art, but also of necessity. In the behind-the-scenes “Making-Of” material included on the DVD, Kassovitz discusses how the French film industry would not fund a black and white film. But since today’s technology can create such stunning visual effects, he could easily realize his ambitions.
It’s the same for all the people they meet and interact with. Kassovitz’s aesthetic choice changes the dynamic in La Haine. In color, the film would feel like your standard gang banging affair, a group of routine reprobate prowling the streets, looking for (and frequently finding) trouble. But by draining the differences away, by discounting color from the visual scheme, the director keeps the themes of racial strife and disaffected youth front and center. Kassovitz is also mining material that we can easily relate to. With the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in LA still fresh in the minds of the masses (this movie was made only three years after the LA Riots that followed the acquittal of the guilty officers), and during recent riots in France (sparked when two African teens were accidentally electrocuted in a power station while hiding from the law), the concept of racial tensions both inside and outside the system is easily understandable. In this context, the complaints of our amiable anti-heroes don’t seem so misguided, especially with ever-present reminders of how significantly awry the world can go at any time.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of La Haine is how carefully the story builds to its shocking (if not wholly unexpected) climax. It’s as if every scene Kassovitz creates leads to another, more unsettling situation. Abuse and bigotry are omnipresent, and when Said and Hubert end up in a police interrogation room, their terrible treatment is a testament to everything the film is arguing over. But so are the moments when Vinz and his pals simply sit around and sulk. Their conversations all center on the racial unease in the projects, and the tenuous political policies regarding immigration. In fact, the riots to them are not a reaction to said agendas, but a way of working out much of their locked-up aggressions.
When viewed alongside the equally effective works it mimics (like Lee’s masterpiece), La Haine shows significant social smarts. It doesn’t celebrate these errant youths as much as dissect them, showing home lives sparked by desperation and a country caving in on itself over how to treat the inevitable influx of foreigners. Though Vinz, Said, and Hubert were all born in France (a reality Kassovitz reminds us of several times in the DVD supplements), it’s their difference from the standard French identity that makes them targets of and participants in social violence. They are carelessly categorized as unintelligent, worthless, and lacking initiative because of their heritage, not because of who they are. Their guides are the voices of angry African-Americans, supposedly authentic statements of US unrest that are, in truth, frequently manipulated by corporate calls for cash-creating controversy. For the trio, it’s not a question of love or hate, or even acceptance and prejudice. It’s a measure of rage and its eventual destructive outlet. No wonder it all seems so hopeless.