Police Brutality, Inequality and Colonialism: 25 Years on, 'La Haine' Is Just as Powerfully Relevant

David Kane
·5-min read
Photo credit: La Haine
Photo credit: La Haine

From Esquire

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of La Haine in UK theatres. The incendiary breakout film by director Mathieu Kassovitz explores a day in the life of three young adults living in the impoverished, French housing estates, or, ‘banlieues’.

The film stars the honourable Hubert (Hubert Koundé), the impulsive Vinz (Vincent Cassel) and verbose joker, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), as a “black-blanc-beur” (black-white-Arab) triumvirate of friends. They perform using their real first names as if La Haine needed any more authenticity, and they act as if their young lives depend on it.

Set in the aftermath of a violent protest on the banlieue which leaves Abdel, a friend of the trio, in a coma. This results in an anonymous revenge attack on a local police station and a riot police officer losing his revolver, ending up in the hands of Vinz.

The fact that La Haine is filmed in black and white — a decision made mainly due to it being cheaper to produce than in colour —supports its aesthetic longevity but so too does the fashion. The clothing holds up remarkably well, and its influence must have seeped into the mood boards of the tracksuit-favouring, 90s kids like Gosha Rubchinskiy and the block-heavy type of Virgil Abloh’s Off White brand (note the varsity jacket from the Inspector Notre Dame).

Photo credit: La Haine
Photo credit: La Haine

And as if to go full circle, the streetwear culture La Haine inspired has led brands like Aime Leon Dore and Reebok to release limited-edition capsule collections in time for the 25th anniversary. Both collections helped raise money for Ecole Kourtrajme, an independent film school in Paris and One Association, which supports youth in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, where the movie was filmed.

From a personal perspective — as a secular, Jewish teen growing up in the suburbs of east London — watching La Haine for the first time was something of a revelation to see a different portrayal of Jews in cinema or TV in the shape of Vincent Cassel’s Vinz. Vulnerability wrapped up in macho bravado with a clenched fist for a face. It was also a striking filter of my beloved hip-hop culture through a European lens. The theme of identity is so essential to La Haine; it demands contemplation of one's own.

The three friends represent a new, mosaic French identity and 25 years on it’s one still straining for acceptance in a country haunted by colonialism and the threat of a Le Pen in government. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a proud nationalist, founded the National Front in 1972 and stood for election five times, he collected 15% of the first-round vote upon the film's release in 1995. Hubert elegantly articulates Le Pen’s popularity amongst the ‘silent majority’ as the friend’s world descends into chaos shortly after finding out Abdel has died in hospital — " They vote far-right but aren't racists. They can't move without escalators. The Worst!"

Photo credit: La Haine
Photo credit: La Haine

More recently, his media-savvy daughter — Marine, who won the leadership of the party in 2011 — rebranded the party to the ‘National Rally’, partly in an attempt to sway urbanites and those disillusioned with the two major political parties. She expelled several of the party's most controversial members, including her father. And was runner up to Emmanuel Macron in the most recent election.

But in Marine Le Pen’s case, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and anti-immigration and anti-Islamic controversy, in particular, has never been far away. In recent years she has begun co-opting the term ensauvagement, which roughly translates as “descent into savagery”, from radical right fringe literature into various speeches and TV appearances. The use of the word ‘savagery’ is not incidental.

La Haine is a far cry from the City of Love we usually see on film. The presence of the banlieues, not just physically but figuratively too, hangs heavily over the film. Existing in the outskirts of the city, they can no doubt be challenging places to live but are also communities rich in creativity, culture and sporting achievement. For Hubert, Vinz and Saïd they are home — despite the protests and tension — and where they feel most comfortable.

Kassovitz emphasises this by using wide-angle and carefully composed cinematography, injecting beauty in even the most brutal and homogenous high-rises. For the second half of the film, the trio venture into the centre of Paris to collect money owed to Saïd by the drug dealer Asterix. The use of a telephoto lens and fragmented staging creates a different, unwelcoming, atmosphere.

It’s just one of the many smart touches by the director that creates double meaning, nearly every scene and camera angle is carefully calculated and packed full of symbolism. La Haine is, at times surreal, brutal and banal, often within moments.

In La Haine, the threat of police brutality is never far away. The three friends are plagued by the police throughout, and Vinz is determined to kill a cop in revenge for Abdel’s death. Hubert, the yang to Vinz’s yin, argues with him that not all cops are bad. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, it is him and Saïd who find themselves sadistically mistreated by police in a holding cell during one infamous scene.

Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor, and most notably George Floyd, the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police this year makes for a depressing roll call and places the subject matter of La Haine into sharp focus. It seems some things never change, even when they must.

Such is the leviathan effect of La Haine, a conversation about the film is often framed in the context of current events. In a recent interview with AFP, Kassovitz explained: "There will always be police brutality. We have to remind ourselves it exists. We also have to learn our history and at a certain moment say, 'That's enough.'"

Great art like La Haine remains timeless - but like the most potent art, it is prescient too.

To mark the 25th anniversary of Matthieu Kassovitz’s landmark film, the BFI will release a newly restored 4K version of La Haine on November 23rd.

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