When released in 1995, La haine was more than a film: it was a cinematic statement. Through the camera ‘s unforgiving eye, young director Mathieu Kassovitz explored the systemic injustice of 1990s France, zooming in on racial discrimination and social inequality. With a focus on three fictional protagonists living in a Parisian ‘banlieue’ – an outer-city suburb infamous for poverty and violence – the film drew back the curtain on the reality of 1995 French suburban life for a person belonging to a minority group. Instead of prosperity and hope, Kassovitz showed us police brutality and poverty, all shot in a distinctive monochrome which leaves no room for embellishing the truth. The film’s tragic, ambiguous ending left every 90s viewer asking themselves those fateful words: what happens next?
And what did happen? Fast-forward 25 years, and the words ‘defund the police’ have again emerged into the popular vocabulary of the Left. The Black Lives Matter movement, gaining further momentum following the death of Black American George Floyd at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin, has carried millions worldwide into protesting against racism. Trump’s America has worryingly expanded the Overton window, whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has only highlighted the inequalities of global society. Though La haine was produced specifically as a political comment on 1990s France, it would be ignorant to suggest that its themes are not globally relevant in 2020.
Incidentally, Kassovitz was prompted to write the film following the death of Makomé M’Bowolé, a Black man from France, in police custody in 1993. M’Bowolé, shot in the head by police during his interrogation, was on a charge for stealing cigarettes. In fact, the extent of police violence in France during this time caused the French word bavure, translating to ‘smudge’ or ‘blunder’, to take on a new meaning: ‘police misconduct’. This new wave of police violence came as 1990s France saw some suburban developments, many of them originally built to house post-war immigrants, become hotspots for crime as their increasing social issues led to alienation from the rest of French society.
In La haine, Kassovitz argues that banlieusards, the inhabitants of such suburbs, are really the victims of their social circumstances. For example, in the film, Hubert, a Black banlieusard, sells drugs to support his family, whilst Vinz, another character, turns to violent crime after one of his friends is killed by the police. Other events in the film shows that these livelihoods come naturally to neither of the men. Hubert’s first attempt to make money from running a gym fails when the gym is torched during a riot, and Vinz finds he is truly unable commit murder when he is actually faced with the opportunity to kill a far-Right skinhead. Meanwhile, a short scene with a wealthy cocaine dealer in the centre of Paris reflects that whilst crime is equally rife in the city centre, wealthy areas are not subject to such barbaric police tactics as the impoverished suburbs.
And so it seems that with La haine, Kassovitz creates something remarkable. Yes, this film is angry: at society, at authority, at injustice. However, Kassovitz’s piece is so much more than anger. It is raw and exposing, dark humour mixed in with heart-wrenching emotional turmoil, all as a response to what Kassovitz ominously names la chute, or ‘the fall’: the steady collapse of one’s hopes and livelihood at the hands of one’s social circumstances.
2020 has proven, in its first ten months, that the society we live in is far from just. However, those ten months have also seen a surge in energy to fight for rights: spearheaded by BLM, political activism is surging, and the polar inequalities exposed by Covid-19 are becoming more and more difficult for governments to ignore. Justice will not come easy; we still have so much to fight for in order to beat all of the issues Kassovitz presents. But I do hope that in another 25 years, we will be a few steps further on the path to global justice, perhaps no longer asking ‘what happens next?’, but instead looking forwards into a future very different to the past we are leaving behind.