“Race is the modality in which class is lived.”
Stuart Hall, Policing the Crisis
“La France est une garce et on s’est fait trahir
Le système, voilà ce qui nous pousse à les haïr
La haine, c’est ce qui rend nos propos vulgaires”
Sniper, La France
Twenty five years after it’s official release in France, La Haine is more pertinent than ever. The film’s enduring themes, from struggles against murderous, racist police to politically existential grief, speak directly to the concerns and conflicts of audiences in 2020 and 1995 alike. It was these aspects of life which occupied people throughout the 1990s – in-that very little happened that was politically significant, hence the feeling of political purgatory for the Left and the hegemony of monopoly capital and neoliberal ideology throughout the decade.
Humorous, political, and genre-breaking, La Haine features three protagonists (Hubert, Saïd, and Vinz) living in Paris’s working-class suburbs (banlieue), from which the city draws its cheap labor. An important dimension of the film, the three main characters are Black-Arab-Jewish, representing the unique experiences of three historically oppressed groups in France and the names of each of them are also the names of the actors who portrayed them. Shot entirely in black and white, the film is a 24-hour window into the lives of the three friends right after a major rebellion over the police shooting of their friend Abdel, who remained in critical condition throughout the film and for whom Vinz plans to avenge if he dies from his wounds. The plot is based on true events: in 1993, French-Zairian Makomé M’Bowole was shot in the head at point-blank range by the French police. As soon as he heard, Mathieu Kassovitz joined in the protests that erupted, and he began to write the script for La Haine when he returned home that night. Beginning with Bob Marley’s famous Burnin’ and Lootin’ as the background music, the opening scenes of the film are composed of real footage from the major rebellions of 1993 against police murders in Chanteloup-les-Vignes. The plot takes us from the trio’s lives in the banlieue which have both elements of dullness and tense, observing the destruction from the night before and into Paris, where they manage to find more adventure both for better and for worse.
The true voice of the script-writer and by-far the most insightful character, Hubert often speaks most directly to the central concerns of the film and its characters as the plot unfolds. He explains to both of his friends that killing one policeman out of revenge will not change the system, and later responds to a cop who bails him out of jail “Who protects us from you?”
The trio encounter both the formal violence of the state and the informal violence of a neo-nazi gang in Paris. The police arrest both Hubert and Saïd for seemingly no reason, then subject them to a violent and violating interrogation. The whole time, a young cop looks on, as the police teach him how to deal with detained persons. After they are released, Hubert and Saïdcatch up with Vinz and soon get into a confrontation with a neo-nazi gang. At the end of the scene, Vinz cannot bring himself to kill one of them despite Hubert’s encouragement as he points his gun at the fascist’s head. Finally, they make it back to their neighborhood in the morning, but Saïd and Vinz are immediately arrested by the policemen they dealt with the day before and Vinz is murdered while in handcuffs. Within 24 hours they have experienced a popular rebellion, police violence, neo-nazi violence, and the murder of Vinz.
Despite receiving cult-movie status around the world, La Haine struck a nerve in its country of origin; many could not comprehend the vast gap between what France thought of itself and the violent, stratified realities of French society. La Haine makes visible gulf between the two, spotlighting France’s profound class divisions through the cultural, political, and physical divisions between the banlieues and Paris proper – the points of reference between the two locations could not be more different.
The conflicts and disparities made visible by La Haine inspired much of the cultural response to state violence in France particularly through the rap-group Sniper who wrote songs critical of then-Minister of Communications and future President Nicolas Sarkozy (whom the philosopher Alain Badiou aptly referred to as “the rat”), the fascist National Front Party, French support of settler-colonialism in Palestine, and more.
Nothing has changed since the movie was released. France is still a racist society towards Arab, Jewish and Black residents. Although the film sparked significant dialogue and encouraged further artistic projects focusing on France’s political and cultural struggles, the political impact of La Haine did not precipitate widespread change in the country. However, with only a quarter of a century since its release, this should not necessarily be expected either. France is a deeply racist country with a long colonial past; a nation with selective amnesia about its history; a police force who famously threw countless numbers of Algerians into the Seine river to drown, and that to this day continues their racist violence and brutal crackdowns on the residents of the banlieues.
Relevance 25 Years On
The film opens with a joke about a man falling from the top of a skyscraper who keeps telling himself jusqu’ici tout va bien (so far so good). Returning to the joke in the last scene, Hubert reaffirms that essentially, French society is in free fall but constantly tells itself “jusqu’ici tout va bien.” The popular meme of a dog sitting in a room on fire telling itself “This is fine” is our contemporary equivalent; although first shared as a joke, the image also speaks very seriously to the culture of denial that pervades our failing/”falling” society. It is the liberal who believes voting for a pro-war right-wing democrat as president will solve their problems, as if the recent upsurge of fascist violence and police-murders will simply fade away – constantly saying to themselves, “this is fine.” It is the spectacle of a society that is falling into a deepening crisis.
Amid rebellions throughout the US after the police-murder of George Floyd and the popular calls for abolishing the police, the messages of La Haine continue to be urgent, relevant, and important. Rebellions change the political terrain, forcing the politics of the center to dissolve and revealing the contradictions and social antagonisms which were building beneath – hence Karl Marx’s famous use of Shakespeare’s line from Hamlet, “Well grubbed, old mole!” La Haine is the old mole which twenty five years on has remained burrowed but whose reappearance on the surface is already apparent. It holds a mirror not only to the France of 1995 but to our own contemporary society and is an important reminder that while the crisis is permanent, the relation of forces is provisional.
About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, The Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.
 Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy (New York: Verso, 2010), 36.
 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 2008), 121.