A “blackfaced” French film, “The Other Dumas,” seen through American eyes

Bastille Day celebrates fraternity, among other values, but only some… paler… citizens feel that love, even in the 21st-Century.  Bias remains a pillar of French culture, at least through American eyes.  The suburban immigrant uprisings in 2005 told or reminded us of that.

Painting of the taking of the Bastille (in French, La Prise de Bastille)

As we look at this anniversary of the French revolution let’s pose a difficult, sensitive question: what about the brown, black, or beige French people?  Let’s consider a recent French film that has shoved this topic, and the more awkward questions of black face.

Let’s consider that the filmmaker, Safy Nebbou, cast a title character of a French film, about an ethnically mixed, French literary icon, Alexandre Dumas, with a white, French acting icon, Gerard Depardieu.

That makes you raise your eye brows and ask, “hunh?!”  Mr. Dumas wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and “The Three Musketeers,” and other seminal literary works.  His grandfather was black.

This film The Other Dumas, entered theaters five months ago, in February.  The film  which is « L’Autre Dumas » in French, considers Dumas’ principal collaborator, Auguste Maquet.  It’s not a conventional biographic film.  It raises questions about whether we should Dumas and Maquet as an iconic literary duo instead of leaving Mr. Dumas’ legacy to hold the lot of it.

Gerard Depardieu as Alexandre Dumas, an ethnically mixed, French literary icon

Both French and North American peoples consider and respond to questions about diversity in very different, even disparate, ways: in the U.S., we track a near myriad of statistics in regards to color, and rarely and barely have conversations that lead us to shrink the stark social boundaries that divide us.  The French handle it very differently.  Their government keeps no official statistical records about ethnic or “racial” groups.  They are convinced that that defies the objective of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, their ideal, without regard to your color.  Most Americans probably find this bizarre, awkward, and even ghastly.

This will tell you a lot about the respective characters and outlooks of France’s and the U.S.’ cultures; France trusts (and expects) citizens to know right and act right.  The United States has little of such trust or expectation.

La Fête de la Fédération (Bastille Day) is an instructive hour to pose awkward questions about the realities of that haven, which many non-French people expect to find in France.

A likeness of Mr. Dumas himself

Mr. Depardieu, who has no African ancestry, and didn’t wear burnt cork, the black face material, but reportedly he did “blacken up.”

One English writer’s conservative point of view proposes a rational approach instead of an emotional one.  In writing for the “London Telegraph,” Patrick West, a free-lance writer he said, “Sometimes ‘blacking up’ can have no racist intent, even if people are determined to detect it.”  In “Why ‘blacking up’ white actors isn’t necessarily racist,” he elaborated that, as long as the “portrayals didn’t aim to perpetuate ethnic stereotypes,” we should not take offense.

Marcia Dawkins, a media scholar with California State University – Fullerton, has been considering the Dumas question also.  She has been writing about a recent trend in film casting: passing for mixed. In response to Mr. West’s stance, Prof. Dawkins said, by-phone, that Mr. West isn’t completely off, “but it ignores the complex history…  We need to be more sensitive to how” these subtle and very sensitive questions are dealt with.

When people see that Depardieu used a contemporary version of black face, rancor easily follows.  The word mistrel pops to mind.  Prof. Dawkins understood this easily: “I definitely think it is to some degree.  It’s not the same as minstrelsy.   It’s like a first or second cousin of it.”  Just because you can take a cool, rational approach to this, “…that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cool..,” Dawkins said

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4 Comments

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  1. Racism is already a very common trait in some nation. Although other nation see this as something prejudiced but to others this is already a way of life. You cannot blame other nation such as the French nation for not accepting other people such as black people into their country’s history.

  2. The spirit of you article is valid, but your reference to Dumas and this movie are partially incorrect. I have not seen this movie yet, but I understand it is about Dumas Fils, the son of Alexandre Dumas and the Author of Camille, not the Three Musketeers. If you look up Dumas Fils, it is not apparent he is African decent in any way. The photo you posted above is Dumas the father (Alexandre), and he does obviously show his lineage. Either I am mistaken about the movie, or you don’t know your literature very well, nor the family that you are discussing.

  3. My apologies! Of course I am the one mistaken. I managed to find a little more on this movie and realize my mistake since it is about Alexandre Dumas. I would have to agree completely then that the casting is a complete mistake.

    Sorry for the hasty remarks. I don’t see a delete button and I have no idea where I got my original notion about the movie.

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