From the moment Bob Marley’s Burning and Looting kicks in over images of riots in a Parisian banlieue, you get the feeling this is a film you need to see. I didn’t know a lot about La Haine before I first saw it (it’s French, it’s in black and white, it stars a young Vincent Cassel) but something told me it was a film I’d enjoy. From the moment the title sequence started playing, my suspicions were confirmed. This was a film that I needed to see.
The title sequence is by no means the only scene that stands up on its own. Kassovitz has a knack for creating these highly entertaining and autonomous moments; The housing project DJ blasting a mix of KRS-One and Edith Piaf to his neighbours below. A seemingly meaningless bathroom joke shared between its three protagonists and a fortuitous passer-by. Perhaps most aesthetically memorable is the dizzying dolly zoom shot of the three boys with the streets of Paris shortening behind them. The technique may be inspired by a certain scene in Goodfellas and the influence of Scorsese on the film overall is another reason to love it. It’s a modern classic born straight out of the tenets of the new Hollywood. It feels like a natural heir to someone like Scorsese. La Haine is fictional yet all too easily believable story based on true events featuring young marginalised protagonists, a perfect balance of humour and grim reality, and inexperienced actors given starring roles under their same first names. Vincent Cassell even mimics De Niro’s Travis Bickle in front of his mirror with his ‘you talking to me’ imitation.
These moments, brilliant as they are alone, are of course just parts to a much bigger story. A story about the lives of French immigrants, a story about race relations, police brutality, state housing, and what the future holds for young boys living in the banlieues. This is a coming of age story built with conflicts only young people of colour will have experienced. In the same way that children make defining choices in Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, the adolescent boys of this Parisian slum are forced to grow up fast. Their lives are about to change over the course of one night. After a boy is hospitalized in the aftermath of a police riot, three friends are faced with how to react to what has happened. As Vinz deals with his masculinity, Saïd is set up as the impressionable loyal compadre, hungry to prove his worth and Hubie’s battle with morality comes to define his character, the trio gain depth and are elevated higher than mere prototypes of misrepresented youth. A series of events following the riots puts the boys in different conflicts; with themselves, with each other, with vengeance, and with deciding what is the right thing to do. The strength of their feelings wax and wane but hinge on one piece of vital information; whether their friend (the boy shot in the riot) will survive the night.
The other obvious talking point about this film for me, is the context of it’s re-release. Watching La Haine today gives the film even more weight than it might’ve done 27 years ago. It’s relevant and haunting much in the same way Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is (released 33 years ago). Among more recent films with with similar subject matter such as Fruitvale Station (2013), Queen & Slim (2019) and recent cinema release Les Miserables (2019) (not that one) it feels distinctly pertinent. Political films and social commentaries can struggle to remain significant after so many years. Often, we add exposition, ‘Now, you have to remember that when this came out… and at that time this was very big…’ etc. to contextualise history. It’s a tragedy that this film, made 27 years ago, doesn’t require such context. I don’t think there’s a lot I can add to this that wouldn’t be better said by someone who has directly experienced such tragedies. So I’ll just say this: I look forward and hope that one day films such as these will be read as documents in time and not a reflection of some people’s present circumstances.
Every now and then, a film grabs you and doesn’t let go. This is a film that burns bright from the moment the Molotov cocktail explodes over an image of the earth in the opening sequence, until the ultimate resolution brings things to a perfect close. If you get the chance to watch it, take it.