For many Westerners, the name Ladj Ly might not ring a bell. Although Ly’s 2019 film “Les Misérables” was Oscar-nominated for Best International Feature Film this past February, being the first Black French filmmaker to do so, he went almost unnoticed among the general mainstream American audience and radar, while receiving praise and recognition from his native France. Why does this matter? Those who haven’t seen it are missing out on one of the boldest critiques in modern cinema. The film explores the ongoing racial and class divides and police brutality applicable not only to France, but to the widespread global collective.
This reality-stricken narrative, a contemporary take on Victor Hugo’s classic “Les Misérables”, highlights the police injustice that many impoverished Sub-Saharan and North African communities in the Banlieues (suburbs) endure in the outskirts of Paris, something the self-trained filmmaker Ly himself experienced growing up. The film centers on a police brutality incident caught on camera and follows a police brigade’s daily routine in the neighborhood of Montfermeil. Viewers get to know two tough bad-mouthed officers Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Manenti) who are obviously used to a rough day on the job, and a naïve newcomer to the force, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard). We see the ups and downs of their day in life—think a sort of French “Training Day” with nods to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”. The film’s dedication to bringing visibility to police corruption makes it memorable and relevant. It disrupts the picturesque, romanticized stereotypes that the world often holds of Paris.
“Les Misérables” doesn’t simply highlight the reality of police bigotry, but also centers heavily on the community’s black and brown youth—the strength found in their unity. The film’s vivid imagery is reminiscent of a documentary that’s both raw and bold, tinging the scenes with a sense of realism that will captivate you and have you drawn in until the very end.
Why can we constantly return to this film? Because it’s not just about an isolated unjust event that happened somewhere in Paris. The film and its attention to police brutality towards the disenfranchised seeps over its French borders making it a relevant and timeless transnational film that speaks to anyone who has awareness of the broken judicial systems around them.
But that’s the power of a good film, it endures.
In the midst of the protests that erupted across the globe in June in the wake of continuous brutal police killings and incidents, that are not new, but rather, are being caught more frequently on camera, it begs the viewer to look at their own nation’s class and racial divides. But, not without looking to the future and leaving the audience with a glimmer of hope. A hope for change that is, that rests on the shoulders of the youth, forcing older generations to take a long hard look at just how deeply rooted seeds of systematic oppression and discrimination really are, everywhere.
In addition to being nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Oscars, “Les Misérables” took home numerous nominations and awards including Best Film at the 2020 César Awards.
If you’re still looking for a movie to watch during your downtime, Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables” is a must.