William's Review of The Intouchables
"Wasn't that a little, uh, racist?"
First words out of my mouth when leaving the theater. I hadn't heard of this movie at all, despite it being highest grossing non-English language movie ever, before my dad recommended it. I went in with no expectations. And I've seen this movie a million times in a variety of forms. A middle-aged, paralyzed and wealthy man hires as his caretaker a rough-around the edges, Senegalese-born, Parisian suburbs-living man. The actors who played these roles were both excellent; the former was excellent in Tell No One, while the latter's performance in this movie made him the first black actor to be awarded France's top honor for acting, which is great. The basic story is stuffy white person who is reinvigorated by the caretaker's id-driven and unapologetic approach to life. Fine, this is like any number of movies and it hits the intended sentimental cues and pushes the right emotional buttons, all a real credit to the performances and the charisma of the actors. It made me laugh, it made me relate, especially one scene involving an opera singer dressed like a tree.
But the black character as constructed here is racist. It's so unsubtle, it's so broad, it's just cringe-inducing because you get the feeling that the creators, middle-aged white French dudes, are genuinely trying to render a black Senegalese-born, Parisian suburb-living twenty-something male as they imagine he exists. Does he say inappropriate things? Non-stop. Is he childlike? Of course. Does he have no manners and no filter? Yes! Is our first real introduction to him is when he is in he acts out-of-control and impatient in a job interview (for the caretaker position) and doesn't care about getting the job because he just wants a signature so he can maintain his welfare check? I wouldn't make this up. Does he steal an expensive Faberge egg in that first scene? Nor that. Does he have a criminal past? Yes. Is he violent and sexist but in lovable ways? Yeah, no problem. Can he dance? He's an amazing dancer! Does he like opera or modern art? No, he mocks them both because they are obviously stupid. Is his ghetto home teeming with kids, like something out of a cartoon? Mais oui, mon ami. Who are the musicians he loves the most, Chopin or something? NO, no, obviously he loves...Kool & The Gang and Earth Wind & Fire. Wait... what? Yeah, forty year old music that probably no one in the banlieus listens to, but maybe the kind of thing that an out-of-touch middle-aged French director would project a young black man as being into because that director hasn't the faintest clue what such a person is actually like and doesn't really care to find out.
If this movie had come out 30 years ago in the US, it would have been ripped apart for its treatment of race. But, in 2012, this is the highest grossing non-English language movie of all time. It has killed it in Europe. So if nothing else, it serves as a reminder to me that for all the faults of the US, we aren't crazy like a Europe that loves a movie that adheres to the broadest tropes about their characterization of different races, a Europe where fans, Italian ones!, actually chanted at Mario Balotelli "there are no black Italians," a Europe that etc. etc. etc.