BY AFRA NARIMAN
La Haine (1995)
Directed by: Mathieu Kassovitz
Stars: Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui
Following the day after a young Arab is beaten unconscious by Police and the riots that ensued that night, three of the victim’s friends spend the day drifting around their neighborhood, taking in the aftermath of a violent night and trying to come to grips over the tragedy that was inflicted on their friend.
La Haine, or Hate, is one of those genuinely important films that stay relevant no matter how much time goes by. It is the sort of artwork that is immortal. With remnants of the earlier released Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee, this French counterpart tells a story revolving around police brutality in a notoriously violent neighborhood located in the suburbs of Paris. Moreover, the culture that the kids in the neighborhood embrace, is in many ways, American. They make constant references to New York and often use American language. The three kids, none of whom’s families are true-born French, feel like outsiders in their own country. Saïd is Arab, Vinz is Jewish and Hubert is from Africa. The film highlights the hate felt by immigrants in France and the segregated neighborhoods that are flooded with violence in which they find themselves living in. While Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing tells the story of racism and police brutality in America; La Haine tells the same story for France. Racism is a language that is understood all around the world; and cinema is a way in which we can become educated about, and further understand, the plights of the oppressed people, not only in our own country, but all around the world. While Lee’s film tells the story of the day leading up to a horrendous, racist and brutally violent incident exacted by the police; Kassovitz’s La Haine expresses a story illustrating the aftermath of such a tragedy, focusing on the day after the incident of police brutality and the riots that follow. Both films focus on criticizing and denouncing racism and police brutality.
The film begins with a powerful monologue from a narrator who returns only to speak the final message at the end of the film:
Towards the end of the film, Hubert relays this same story to Vinz. Throughout the day that the film depicts, Hubert is the most level-headed of the group, the moral compass; while Vinz is the most temperamental and reactive of the group. Saïd is the talkative one and has no filter when he speaks, but is somewhere in between his two friends. Early in the film, Vinz expresses his intent to kill a police officer if their friend dies in the hospital. Hubert’s response was that “hate breeds hate.” All throughout the film, Hubert tries to mitigate Vinz’s instinctual anger and hate, reminding him that killing one police officer does not breed change… it breeds hate, which will only breed more hate and more tragedy. He pleads to Vinz to not carry the world on his shoulders. In the end, Vinz chooses not to kill anybody, realizing that he doesn’t want to succumb to hate, but sadly falls victim to it. In explaining the story of the man falling from the building, Hubert clarifies its meaning to Vinz:
To which, Vinz responds:
The story of the falling man, and the two friends’ philosophical and profound discussion of its meaning encapsulates the essence of the film’s message. People who grow up in segregated, violent neighborhoods who face racism and brutality, who are always misjudged, forgotten and underestimated; they are always falling, hoping to land on their feet, but the odds are stacked against them. Often times, they feel lost. Hubert’s wish is for he and his friends to get out of the projects, to land on their feet. He believes that to do this, you must not react to hate, with hate.
At the beginning of the film, following the narrator’s monologue, we see real-life footage of riots and police brutality, accompanied by Bob Marley’s powerful and relevant Burnin’ & lootin‘. By doing this, Kassovitz immediately captures our attention. From the very beginning, before the story even begins, we know that we are about to indulge in a truly important film. By choosing to paint the film in black & white, he extracts all distractions from the realm of possibility. We are absolutely and completely invested in La Haine from the very tip. The film’s use of unique camera shots also assists with garnering our undivided attention. Whether its Vinz’ ode to Taxi Driver in a scene where he stares into the mirror, the film’s use of mirrors in general to expand the lens of otherwise simple scenes, aerial shots, close-up shots with the characters looking and speaking right into the camera, unbelievably breathtaking transitions, or an array of cool scenes, such as Hubert hitting the punching bag, the DJ spinning the record and the montage of break-dancing; La Haine’s ability to captivate you through creative visuals and spectacularly engaging cinema is other-worldly. There isn’t a moment that isn’t utterly engaging. The film is full of interesting and genuine dialogue, meaningful messages and lively interactions. Additionally, this film displays a side of Paris that is often overlooked in movies. We’re used to the romantic and artistic elements of Paris, but in La Haine we’re given a lifelike glimpse into the streets of Paris’ projects and introduced to the reality lived by thousands of Parisians.
Exploring a multitude of social and political issues in the most artistic way imaginable, La Haine feels as real as cinema gets. It follows the exploits of an ethnically diverse friend group, as they navigate their ethnically diverse, yet tense neighborhood the day after their Arab friend was brutally beaten by Police, which led to riots in their neighborhood. As they wander the streets, we see the damage that has been inflicted on their community by the riots, including the destruction of Hubert’s gym. We see that much of the destruction caused by the rioting was primarily felt by members of the community who live in the neighborhood in which the riots took place. That being said, the film comes across as an intimate look at the lives of three immigrant members of an oppressed neighborhood, trying to cope with their built-up anger at the system that constantly oppresses and mistreats them. As the film’s mantra states; the film explores the importance of landing on your feet when, as a rootless and exploited member of society living in the projects, your inevitable existence is as someone falling, passing each floor (each day) thinking “so far so good.” The film analyzes the understandable emotion of hate, but the vitality of not succumbing to it, of not reacting to hate, through hate. The moral dilemma of revenge is a constant battle that people are fighting, hoping to still make it to the bottom of the building standing up. The film also examines the problem of police brutality and scrutinizes the system by posing the question to police officers, those who are meant to protect and serve: “Who’s gonna protect us?” One of the most telling and horrifying scenes is when Saïd and Hubert were being held in jail, being tortured for fun by a veteran cop who was “training” what seemed to be a rookie cop.
The final monologue of the film, in which the narrator returns during the tragically climactic and powerful ending, speaks volumes on the overarching message of the film. As the camera slowly zooms in on Saïd, who is anticipating more catastrophe, the same story is told, but this time in relation to society as a whole:
When society is built off of hate: off of racism, separation, violence and everything else that hate stands for; society itself is in a free fall. A society that lives through hate, will not last. In such a society, there are symptoms that eventually form disease, which grows until the entire world is swallowed by hate. Violence ensues violence; and hate breeds hate. The film is suggesting that as a society, people need to change. If everybody isn’t free from hate, from violence and from prejudice; nobody can live in peace or harmony. The only antidote for hate, is the love we must show our fellow humans. It is in the hands of each person living in a society to ensure that the world is not swallowed by hate. If hate persists, if we allow love to simmer while hate cultivates and expands; the world will continue to be a vile and disgusting place for so many people. La Haine is about the power of hate; but the power that we have to combat it.
This film brings to light the issues of racism, discrimination, and police brutality in our society. Through incredibly captivating dialogue, cinematography and visuals; La Haine is able to present an immensely powerful story about three kids whose lives and friendship are tested by hate. Following them as they wander around their rioted neighborhood, a day removed from the brutal and fatal beating of their friend, at the hands of the police, the film shows us, that where there is hate, there is violence; and where there is violence, there can not be peace. Accompanied by a deeply powerful message that surrounds the essence of the entire film and that is emphasized at its conclusion, La Haine shows us the negative impact that hate has on society. No matter who administers it, it will catch up with all of us in the end. Until we eradicate hate, society will continue to be in a free fall.
Aside from everything that I have written, there is still much more that can be discussed and taken from the events and messages depicted in La Haine; that’s how deep of a story it is. 25 years later and this film is still significantly relevant and truly one of the greatest and most powerful pieces that cinema has to offer.