Arts & Entertainment

‘La Haine’: Breathtaking Social Relevance 25 Years Later

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Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Date: Feb. 23, 1996

Unrated | 1 hour 38 minutes

More than 25 years after making waves at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, the relevance of French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine” has reverberated much further than its initial extended standing ovation. A commentary on French police brutality in the 1990s, “La Haine” is gripping until the last second and its lasting social significance spans decades and continents. 

Moments of joy, comedy and camaraderie interject the film’s gritty depiction of a Parisian banlieue — one of many working-class suburbs on the city’s outskirts faced with violence and unrest. Kassovitz acquaints the audience with young protagonists Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Hubert (Hubert Koundé) over the span of a tumultuous 24 hours as they wait for updates about their friend Abdel (Abdel Ahmed Ghili), who lay comatose in the hospital after being arrested and assaulted by police. Incorporating detailed depictions of youth culture in the banlieue, especially among immigrants, through attention to music, fashion and slang, Kassovitz paints an intimate picture of the trio’s everyday lives. 

This attention to the vibrance of banlieue youth culture is contrasted starkly by violent clashes between young people and the authorities. Imagery such as Saïd and Hubert’s harassment by police in the station as an officer-in-training sat watching paints an especially bleak picture of the blatant abuse of power exercised by authorities. These brutal depictions of police brutality have caused many critics to accuse Kassovitz of having anti-police biases.

According to Ginette Vincendeau’s essay for the Criterion Collection, the Libération daily newspaper reported, following the film’s Cannes debut, “[the] uniformed police supposed to form a double ceremonial parade … ostensibly looked toward the sea; in other words, they turned a hateful back to the team who made the film that hates them.” 

Today marks the 25th anniversary of “La Haine”’s Feb. 23, 1996 U.S. release, and the film still retains all its original relevance. Inspired by this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality in the U.S., as well as remaining tension from the French riots against police brutality in the ‘90s, French demonstrators took to the streets – both in solidarity and to advocate for justice in their own cases of police violence, NPR reported in June 2020. 

In a September 2020 interview with Kaleem Aftab of the British Film Institute, Kassovitz said he decided to make “La Haine” on April 6, 1993, the day 17-year-old Makomé M’Bowolé was murdered by Paris police. 

“I thought, this is unbelievable, a man wakes one morning and that night he gets killed,” Kassovitz said in a 1999 interview with Thomas Bourguignon and Yann Tobin for “Projections 9: Filmmakers on Filmmaking.” “That was my story.”

Another individual whose death sparked the French movement was Adama Traoré, a Black Frenchman who died while in police custody in 2016. Many believe Traoré was killed at the hands of police, helping to inspire more than 20,000 people to protest at the French capital this June, according to NPR.

The Washington Post’s police shootings database reported, as of Feb. 18, 997 Americans have been shot and killed by police in the past year. According to polls conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation this June, about one in 10 Americans said they had attended a protest, rally or demonstration against police violence, 52% of whom were between the ages of 18 and 29. Data collected by the Crowd Counting Consortium, Edwin Chow and The New York Times estimated protests peaked on June 6, when half a million people showed up at demonstrations in more than 500 places across the country. 

Prevalent throughout the movie is the allegory of the man — or later, the society — in free fall, thinking “so far so good, so far so good” as he plummets further and further. “But it’s not about how you fall,” Hubert explained in the film. “It’s about how you land.”

Along with frequent timestamps and a distinct ticking sound, Kassovitz uses the two versions of the same parable, voiced by Hubert, to bookend the film. This motif is symbolic of the rootlessness of poverty in the banlieue that boils like a time bomb, culminating in violent clashes between the oppressed and those enforcing the status quo.

“La Haine” has captivated audiences for decades and its relevance is given new life when analyzed in a modern, cross-cultural context. The film’s ending explodes into a million different questions left unanswered, prompting viewers to ask the hard truths not of “La Haine” itself, but its societal context. No matter the events of the film, the outcome remains the same: “la haine attire la haine” — “hate breeds hate.” 

“La Haine,” unrated, is available for streaming on Kanopy and for rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Apple TV+.

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