French cinema is still refusing to face its racism

Why did Aissa Maiga’s speech calling out racism in the French film industry receive no support at the 2020 Cesar Awards?

Aissa Maiga speech Reuters
Actress Aissa Maiga speaks on stage during the 45th Cesar Awards Ceremony in Paris, France on February 28, 2020 [Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]

“Imagine televisions in this country exclusively transmitting images of Black people, telling stories of Black people, for Black people … Imagine, our dear compatriots, being absent, invisible … But rest assured, it is us who are absent. And this is not a fiction.”

In February 2000, actor/director Luc Saint-Eloy and novelist Calixthe Beyala gate-crashed the 25th annual Cesar Awards Ceremony in Paris and walked on stage to deliver a powerful speech on the lack of black representation in French cinema and television.

The unexpected disruption to the stream of pleasant, congratulatory speeches left the predominantly white audience of the “French Oscars” speechless. They were all frozen in surprise and discomfort.

A lot has changed in French cinema in the two decades that followed, at least on the surface. We see many more black and brown faces in French movies and television shows these days. Saint-Eloy and Beyala are no longer in the mainstream public sphere, but the problem they highlighted in that landmark speech 20 years ago is still not resolved. The few black actors and actresses active in the industry struggle to find parts that do not reduce them to racial stereotypes. 

This is why another person of colour felt the need to call out the lack of diversity on French screens once again this past February. 

Aissa Maiga took the stage at this year’s Cesar Awards to present the best female newcomer award looking every part the elegant, beautiful and smiley actress she is expected to be. As she walked towards the stage, the audience enthusiastically applauded her, expecting to hear an ordinary introduction complimenting the nominees and perhaps stealing a few laughs with stale but polite one-liners. When she started her speech by greeting the few black faces in the audience (just 12 in a total of 1,600), however, it became clear to everyone in the glamorous venue that she was not there to make them feel good about themselves. 

The black woman stood tall and alone on the empty stage for almost five minutes and addressed the elephant in the room with surgical precision. “We survived whitewashing, blackface, tonnes of dealer roles, housekeepers with a Bwana accent, we survived the roles of terrorists, all the roles of hypersexualised girls,” Maiga told the attendees. “But we are not going to leave French cinema alone.” 

As the camera spun across the room, actors, directors, producers and TV personalities were all seen shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Even when Maiga tried to engage them by declaring “inclusion cannot happen without you”, the reception was incredibly icy. 

The sea of impatient, unresponsive and even hostile faces staring back at her was proof that not much has changed, really, since Saint-Eloy and Beyala took that very same stage 20 years ago.

Maiga’s speech immediately caused a media storm, demonstrating the impact her words had on the wider French society. 

One major national newspaper, Le Monde, described her speech as “aggressive” while right-wing MEP Nadine Morano suggested the actress should “go back to Africa” if she is “unhappy to see so many white people”.

There we are. The “angry” black woman has no place in FranceShe should behave and show gratefulness, or go “back to where she came from”.

This was not the first time Maiga spoke about the lack of diversity in her profession. Just two years ago, she was one of the 16 black actresses who took over the Cannes Film Festival’s famous red-carpet-clad steps, wearing matching black and white Balmain dresses, to call out lack of representation in French cinema. The reaction she received back then, however, was visibly different. As the actresses, who had all signed  the book-manifesto “Black is not my profession”, danced and posed in front of the cameras, the spectators were nothing but supportive. The consequent media reports on their protest also only talked of their beauty, style and courage. 

So why was her speech last month, highlighting the very same issues, received so negatively? 

Because black people in France, especially the ones in the public eye, are allowed to call out “racism” as long as they are not being overtly political and forcing the rest of society to accept their part in the problem. They are allowed to speak out as long as they do so using humour, music and dance. They need to be reassuring in order to be heard.

Nevertheless, there is an awakening in the French film industry. When Roman Polanski, who fled the United States after being charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old child, was named best director at this year’s Cesar Awards Ceremony, for example, many did not hesitate to call the decision “shameful”. When the prize was announced, actress Adele Haenel, who recently revealed that she was sexually assaulted by a film director when she was a minor, walked out. Several actors and directors, including Maiga, immediately followed suit. There were crowds outside chanting “Polanski is a rapist”. 

The criticism the Cesars received for honouring someone like Polanski is a sign that things are changing in France’s film industry. People are finally prepared to take those in positions of power to task. But real change can only be achieved when this reaction is intersectional. The same power structures that allow a sexual predator to be celebrated as a great director also ensure that the widespread racism in the film industry remains unchallenged. 

Adele Haenel received widespread support for standing up to the patriarchy, but when Maiga asked for some help in the fight against white supremacy, she received condemnation and was ignored by many commentators. At that historic ceremony, both Haenel and Maiga defiantly said “enough” to the old world controlling their lives and careers, and they both deserve respect and recognition. The only way to defeat oppression and discrimination is through solidarity, even in the movies. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.