La Haine’s Legacy
25 years on, the iconic French film is as relevant as ever.
Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer
The film La Haine was released in 1995; a black and white portrayal of three friends living in a poor neighbourhood in Paris which is populated by immigrants and set out to a night journey in which they get caught by the police, set over a 24 hour period. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, the film covers themes of poverty, racism, crime, immigration, police brutality, the youth and violence in a very real and honest telling.
“When a young Arab is arrested and beaten unconscious by police, a riot erupts in the notoriously violent suburbs outside of Paris. Three of the victim’s peers, a white Jew, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), an Arab, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) and a black man, Hubert (Hubert Koundé), wander aimlessly about their home turf in the aftermath of the violence as they try to come to grips with their outrage over the brutal incident. After one of the men finds a police officer’s discarded weapon, their night seems poised to take a bleak turn.”
Set in the working-class banlieues of Paris, it shows the audience the real image of the city; gritty suburbs of the city filled with high-rise concrete housing estates and poverty-stricken immigrant residents (similar to the ‘projects’ in Queens, New York City), with lack of any real investment from the state. Being set in black and white, Kassovitz only adds to the dark and dystopian image; the lack of colour and massive empty spaces filled with graffiti and burnt down buildings.
“Unrest in the working-class banlieues was a familiar phenomenon before La Haine. The cités concentrate social problems: run-down housing, a high concentration of young people from immigrant backgrounds, drugs, and rampant unemployment. Their social deprivation and cultural alienation are echoed in their topographical isolation from the city centre”
Extract from “La haine and after: Arts, Politics, and the Banlieue” written by Ginette Vincendeau, 2012.
The actual banlieue location for the film was Chanteloup-les-Vignes (where residents actually allowed the filming to happen) and was filmed during 1989–1996 riots with real riot footage is used for the introduction of the film. The use of archival footage is a valuable technique because it immediately sets the tone and contextualises the fictional story with social realities.
The inspiration for the film comes from a history of French police brutality after Makome M’Bowole was “accidentally” (bavures) shot and killed at point-blank range while handcuffed to a radiator in police custody in 1993. Kassovitz was also inspired by Malik Oussekine who was beaten to death by police after a mass demonstration in 1986 which he did not take part; another bavure. Kassovitz himself also took part in riots.
“I was in my car, not too far away, when I heard about it on the radio, so I parked and went to join in with the protests. I was so mad at the whole situation,”
Kassovitz on the murder of Makome M’Bowole.
The main theme, and general plot, of the film, is about the long-festering social and economic divisions affecting the city in the 1990s with police brutality through discrimination being a key factor; something that wasn’t unique to Paris and still isn’t. This remains far from changed since 1995 and is only as relevant as ever in 2020 following several police brutality cases in America, most notably the murder of George Floyd in May and the subsequent riots, burning and looting across American cities.
Watching these opening scenes of the film, of rioting and police violence, it feels like it could’ve been filmed yesterday.
The film was such an honest and vivid depiction of banlieue life that France’s then-Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, organised a special screening of the film were cabinet members were required to attend. French President Jacques Chirac even sent Kassowitz a personal letter thanking him for his enlightening portrayal of a portion of French society which had traditionally been ignored. The film held a mirror to crushing inequalities in modern-day France.
It also proved to be too true and controversial, hitting a raw nerve when police officers turned their backs on Kassowitz at the Cannes Film Festival, perceiving the film to be anti-police. Several riots also took place in Noisey-le-Grand shortly after La Haine’s opening with the media making links between the film and continually growing social discontent in France with one newspaper titling its piece “Noisy-la-Haine”.
Music also plays a big part in La Haine, showing how the youth of France drew from American hip-hop music (of course with their own language twist). It’s hard to think of a country outside of America which has embraced the 1990s New-York hip-hop culture and vibe as much as France; a real underground and gritty sound which can only come from these urban environments. And not just the music of hip-hop but other elements shine through such as fashion, graffiti, breakdancing and smoking weed.
“The young men of the banlieue are clad in sportswear and workwear that split the difference between stylish and practical: Nike, Carhartt, Everlast, Reebok, Lacoste. They breakdance, pass spliffs, shoot the shit in front of graffitied walls, arrange themselves in tableaus that could almost have been ripped from the liner notes of Nas’ ‘Illmatic’, the Queensbridge housing projects swapped for the outskirts of Paris.
Midway through the film, Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert are framed on a balcony overlooking Paris: Vinz in a fitted MA-1 over a Nike windbreaker, Saïd in a leather bomber over a tracksuit, Hubert cloaked in shearling, baggy camo fatigues, and a Carhartt beanie. Pluck them from this scene, drop them back into the 2016 version of the same location, and they would look just as at home. Compare these outfits to contemporary material from street style photography to rap videos both French and American and note the similarities.”
Extract from “THE STYLE LEGACY OF LA HAINE” written by Adam Wry, 2020.
In one of the most iconic music-related scenes in the film, Parisian DJ, Cut Killer appears in the film, mixing New York MC, KRS-One’s ‘Sound Of Da Police’ (an anti-police brutality anthem) into Edith Piaf’s traditional French song ‘Non je ne regrette Rien’; together aptly titled ‘Nique la Police’. The DJ himself scratching and mixing these two songs on two vinyl turntables and blasting it across the estate through massive speakers.
The choice of music underpins the storyline of the film with Hip-Hop itself a storytelling device; telling the stories of the youth and the streets and born from the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods of New York. The similarities are here to see and hear. After the film’s release an album—“La Haine, musiques inspirées du film”—was put out, the songs inspired by the story of La Haine with the intention of transforming the visual spectrum of the film and to amplify the vision of the film.
It highlighted French-language hip-hop as a genre and it’s artists such as MC Solaar, Assassin and Sens Unik. No doubt the film and album inspired many French hip-hop artists to start making music. The rap group, 1995, (formed in 2008) is named after this year—considered a golden year of French hip-hop—and are inspired by spontaneous and positive vibes from this time.
In January 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Kassovitz came out to say that now is the time to make La Haine 2; showing that after 20 years since the film’s release, not much has changed, however, the consensus in Paris was that “this wouldn’t be a follow-up in the conventional sense but rather a much darker version of what was already a tough film”.
Interestingly, the photographer of La Haine, Gilles Favier, had his doubts on the original storyline: “In 1995, I had my doubts whether a black guy, a Jew and an Arab would be friends. But now everything is much more divided. And this is because of the rise of political Islam in the banlieue. This is what created more division and tension and so now it is not just youth against the police or the state, but also youth who are wanting to kill Jews and go to Syria. La Haine was about friends and maybe some hope. Nowadays I think you could only make a film about despair.”
In July 2017, 22 years after the release Kassovitz was asked about La Haine 2 again and upon the mention of the success of La Haine, he replied: “Yeah but that’s not because the movie is good. It’s because politicians are fucking idiots…If politicians were good, nobody would remember La Haine. Nobody would remember La Haine! They would say, ‘ah that movie was good but it’s outdated’. It’s not! These guys have fucked it up, media have fucked it up, politicians fucked it up.”
I think Kassovitz hits the nail on the head here. La Haine is a great film because it’s relevant and relatable; the themes of poverty, racism, crime, immigration, police brutality, the youth and violence all still ring true today. It is a haunting example of how great art resonates across generations. It’s interesting to think if La Haine will still be as relevant in 10, 20 or 30 years time; sadly, I think so.
Side note: I wrote this post on 25.10.20, and was inspired by NTS’ Macca and his special show, showcasing the music of (and inspired by) the film which you can catch here.