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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Έgalité! Fraternité!
by Donald Levit

It is improbable or unprovable that any one single place or people “invented” the exploitation of mass slavery and slaving, racism, discrimination and nationalism. Nevertheless, only blinkered New World liberals and conservative Old World apologists can deny that Europe and its offshoots rank right up there among prime candidate-suspects. In three back-to-back “France and the Race Issues--European Documentaries,” the 22nd African Diaspora International Film Festival considers that concrete Continental archetype, France.

Near the end of his embittered life, James Baldwin acknowledged that his adoptive France had only seemed tolerant, because earlier on there had been few visible racial and ethnic minorities to “threaten” native purebreds.

Frantz Fanon: His Life, His Struggles, His Work does little to introduce that Martiniquan psychiatrist once famous for his writings about the need for revolutionary freedom through bloodletting and also the subject of a 1995 Isaac Julien documentary. He served the Mother Country in the Second World War but, disillusioned by its racism -- see the films of Ousmane Sembène -- practiced “ergotherapy” in Algeria and Tunisia while advocating anti-colonialist action, negritude and black-Arab solidarity. Cheikh Djemai’s fifty-two 2001 minutes offers token stills of its hero but is largely the commentary of family, friends, and co-workers and/or –revolutionists. Their anecdotes are unenlightening, while the lack of contextual material leaves the unfamiliar in the dark, as for instance repeated references to Aimé Césaire, unknown now to all but initiates.

The Glass Ceiling/Le Plafond de verre makes its point and then some, too much so. Though born and educated in France, those who are not blue-blood citizens of generations’ standing but of Muslim and/or black sub-Saharan extraction, are discriminated against.

The first, and longest, section of Yamina Benguigui’s 2004 study centers on first-generation young people who, with family encouragement and sacrifice, have played the game, studied for high marks, graduated from the less expensive less prestigious universities and in cases continued on for advanced degrees. Nevertheless, out in the real world surnames betray them. Rejection letters do not pile up so much only since the majority of their applications go unanswered. If by human resources’ error an interview situation actually materializes, the process ends there, anyway.

Losing enthusiasm along with naïveté, they are shown taking the supplemental courses in networking or self-help or acing interviews or aptitude tests that should be familiar to Americans.

The non-marginalized mainstream adults here acknowledge to the camera the obstacles faced and the dangers of disaffection and dropout. This convincing criticism of entrenched racism and of the stacked system, as well applies to many other countries, but GC undercuts itself during its own last half, a series of enthusiastic on-the-job-site gushings from those men and women who have made it and are pleased -- at least content for the camera -- with whatever lower-echelon managerial-position crumbs have come their way. Interlaced with these faces of self-satisfied employees are those of higher-ups, directors and owners who extol their particular companies’ policies while acknowledging a still no better than problematic color blindness.

The cinematic consideration of Gallic prejudices was rounded by its Closing Night U.S. première of this year’s Steps to Liberty/Les Marches de la liberté. Followed by a Q&A, director-journalist-activist Rokhaya Diallo’s fifty-two minutes captures the March for Equality and Against Racism of thirty years ago, a Parisian version of the 1963 Dr. King March on Washington. The ArtMattan Productions-sponsored film considers young Americans who, among their French counterparts, participate in and react to the organized event and deal with questions about its meaning and impact. Three decades seems a lifetime ago, a generation of change, yet France’s problems with racism and xenophobia have if anything only intensified, as they have throughout the Western World. Immigration from former colonies and from Eastern Europe, unemployment and recession, overtaxed social services and safety nets, have exacerbated what was already a volatile mix.

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