News junkies and political activists may remember the riots that shook the suburbs of Paris in 2005. Disaffected youths of color protesting police brutality and a lack of jobs — alongside a general tendency to treat Black African, Arab, Muslim-identified, and impoverished French citizens of any color the same way that France historically treated its colonial subjects — i.e., with utter contempt — got fed up with the state of things and took it to the streets. The suburbs, where poor people in France tend to live, erupted in fires and violence after two youths were killed under suspicious circumstances. On the orders of then-Interior-Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the government clamped down with a vengeance.
Filmmaker Ladj Ly’s urgent, hard-hitting Les Misérables picks up the story as if it happened yesterday, in the neglected, ghetto-like Parisian banlieue (suburb) of Montfermeil, where we can observe a squad of fictionalized cops from one of that country’s layers of national police conducting their daily business.
At first Ly’s scenario — he wrote it with Giordano Gederlini and actor Alexis Manenti — has the contours of just another policier from the old-cop-new-cop file, updated to reflect the current situation. Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz (played by Damien Bonnard), a transfer from the provinces, gets put into an unmarked car with two of the roughest, savviest rollers on the force, a hot-tempered white head-banger named Chris (co-writer Manenti, who curiously resembles Vladimir Putin) and Gwada, a Bambara-speaking guy from a West African immigrant family, played by actor Djebril Zonga.
Chris is the bad cop, who violates policy every day by smacking around the kids from the projects when they act up, which is often; Gwada does the good cop thing, listening before he speaks. Right away the two veterans run rookie Ruiz through the wringer, making fun of his greasy hair and his habit of staring directly at the faces he encounters (“real cops” try not to make eye contact).
The action takes place just after the French national futbol team has won the 2018 World Cup, and as the cops’ female captain (Jeanne Balibar) back at headquarters notes ironically, everyone is suddenly happy. Tell that to Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu), the community boss and crooked fixer who acts as police liaison but hates his role, and the police. Or Salah (Almamy Kanouté), the solemn, righteous owner of the Ali Bomaye kebab shop and a Muslim community leader. Or Issa (Issa Perica), a neighborhood kid with a massive chip on his shoulder. Or Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly, son of the film’s director), whose peeping-tom pranks using his drone segue into something much more serious. All the while we’re reminded that Montfermeil was one of the settings for Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misèrables — with the underlying social critique as well as its title transferred whole from 1862 to the present day.
Matters are already tense enough in Montfermeil when a baby lion gets stolen from a nearby circus, sending the circus’ volatile Rom owner, Zorro (Raymond Lopez), and his family into a murderous rage and involving the three cops. The circus crew believes the thief is one of the neighborhood kids. Either the community takes action and coughs up the missing lion cub, or a full-scale war will develop between the Roma and the townies.
Director Ly, a native of Mali who reportedly has had real-life run-ins with the police in the past, made Les Misérables as an enlargement of his narrative fiction short film The Pitiful, which grew out of documentary videos he shot of police actions in the neighborhood. In the new film’s press notes, Ly compares junior firebrand Issa to Hugo’s character Gavroche, the street kid-turned-revolutionary. Chris the angry cop can only be compared to the novel’s cruel Inspector Javert. Like Javert, Chris holds “the rabble” in contempt and deals out a form of brutal street justice that violates French legal principles in the dubious service of “law and order.” That’s the obvious hook for Ly’s examination of égalité, and the lack of it, in contemporary French society, made all the more authoritative by his insider’s portrait of the competing forces in the banlieues.
With this furious 2019 bulletin from the have-nots, Ly, a former screen actor, follows in the footsteps of Gillo Pontecorvo, Spike Lee, Raoul Peck, Mathieu Kassovitz, Jean-Luc Godard, and social philosopher Frantz Fanon, all of whose political-societal-racial commentaries remain blisteringly relevant today. To borrow the title of Fanon’s most important book, Issa and his friends, in fact their entire community, remain the wretched of the earth in the colonial eyes of their keepers. The lion cub from the circus has a better chance for happiness than unwanted Issa. See Les Misèrables and face the facts.