From skin-privilege arguments, girlfriends greasing dry scalps, 1970s street games and more, race is inarguably the thread connecting all the films in Spike Lee's 20-year-plus career. This month, the famed Cinémathèque Française is running a Spike Lee retrospective in Paris, topped with Lee's appearance at a preview screening of his latest, Miracle at St. Anna, which opens nationwide today in the U.S.
It is an interesting time to open up an exploration of race in the city of Paris, whose reputation is by turns colorblind and friendly to the black American soldiers of the world wars yet racist toward its native French-African immigrants. A fellow expatriate recently remarked that France would take another century to produce its own Barack Obama, and his sentiment is correct. Despite its creed of "liberty, equality and fraternity" for all, social developments like the November 2005 riots have inscribed ethnicity into the general consciousness here like never before. Thirteen years after the homegrown, race-instructive film, La Haine, the city could use some of the enlightened elements of Lee's work right about now.
Evidence of interest in the Spike Lee film festival is found all over the City of Light. The Cinémathèque Française took the rare promotional route of plastering posters in the métro stations. Lee showed up at Fnac, France's major entertainment retail chain, signing autographs and fielding translated questions. It was a media tour de force.
The Forum des Halles shopping mall in the first arrondissement is always crowded with young multicultural Parisians, and so Fnac was packed with French people of color: Senegalese, Algerian, Guadeloupan, Congolese, etc. The Cinémathèque Française was an altogether different story. As a venerated movie-preservation-theater-slash-film museum, the Cinémathèque attracts a staid, slightly older white audience. It was slightly unsettling for me to sit through 25th Hour, Clockers, Summer of Sam and over four hours of When the Levees Broke with literally two or three other blacks in the audience.
Spike Lee is beloved here, as the applause following his Hurricane Katrina documentary proved. The French generally praise his career milestones (Malcolm X) and diss the flighty missteps (She Hate Me), as might be expected. Still, consider the current political backdrop: Neo-conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy has been running the country for over a year now.
As Interior Minister, Sarkozy was known for his anti-immigration stance. French schools were nearly mandated to teach only the "positive" aspects of the country's imperialism. New laws regulating étrangers have forced me to renew my own residence card annually, instead of being granted the previous policy's 10-year-long permit. The powder keg of the country's alienated black population blew up three years ago during weeks-long suburban rioting, all torched cars and broken windows. It's not impossible to imagine Sarkozy banning Do the Right Thing back then, while promising to clean the "racaille" (scum) from the streets.
French black folks have complicated attitudes about race. In a country that refuses to collect statistics about ethnic origin (guesstimations say 10 percent of the populace is of color), many French-African and Caribbean citizens feel like they are living in pre-civil-rights America. Lost in the celebration of Spike Lee is the fact that no black actor has ever won a César Award—the French equivalent of the Oscar—in the 33-year history of the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinema. Founded in 2005, CRAN is a Paris-based organization that takes its cue from SNCC and the NAACP, launching its own initiative to gather data about such racial discrimination.
On the other hand, a post-racial perspective is also beginning to emerge. "The times they are a-changing, and so must we," said a Martinican actor after a screening of The Very Black Show (known stateside as the minstrel satire Bamboozled). "I have a feeling the time has come to look at race in a very different way. Scratch the usual, so-called traditional criteria and use a fresh approach." A running joke is that Americans are easy to identify because we always mention race within the first five minutes of conversation. Where race is largely seen as a source of comforting identity in the U.S., here it is more often looked at as an imprisoning box, something best to think outside of.
Race is in flux à Paris. People of color are beginning to adopt new self-referential terms: "Afropean" or even "black" replaces "noir" for some, as "colored" and "Negro" were made outdated in America. After the death of revered Martinican poet Aimé Césaire in April, the négritude worldview he formulated in 1935 enjoyed a small resurgence. Négritude stood for solidarity in the African diaspora and a rejection of French colonialism, but more recently, another movement, créolité, has gained a foothold. Counter to négritude, créolité (advanced by a trio of Martinican writers in 1989) plays up the indigenous cultural value of the colonized Caribbean islands—rejecting both the imperialistic influence of France and vestiges of Africa.
Unfortunately, black France has yet to produce its own Spike Lee to bring all these nuances to bear in the universal language of cinema. Maybe he's been sitting somewhere in the Cinémathèque Française this month, silently taking notes.
Miles Marshall Lewis is an American expatriate author, living in Paris since 2004. He blogs at Furthermucker.