Does ‘Intouchables’ Have Just a Touch of Racism?

January 3, 2012  |  

What some see as a “cultural phenomenon” others see as a modern day example of an Uncle Tom in the French film “Intouchables.” The movie tells the story of a poor black man from a low-income housing project in northern Bondy who is hired to take care of a rich white quadriplegic; and while French reviewers have mostly heralded the film which has been breaking box office records, American critics are crying racism.

Speaking of the film’s portrayal of its main character, Driss, as ignorant to the customs of French high society, Variety critic Jay Weissberg wrote that the film “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens.”

“Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey, teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get ‘down.’… It’s painful to see.”

But a commenter on the French AlloCine movie website, retorted, “Did we watch the same movie?” while a French journalist question, “How could the Americans have considered a film we French loved so much as racist?”

Even in a French movie trailer, you get the gist of the cultural divide between the black and white man, which appears to do more with class than race. While I wouldn’t liken the film to “BAPs” or “Bringing Down the House,” it has that same sort of undertone–fun, eccentric black people show rich white folks how to loosen up. The question is, is that racist?

The story line has certainly grown tired here in American cinema but is it OK for Americans to push that outlook on a French film? We’d probably be better off looking at the portrayals of African Americans in films on our own turf than trying to point fingers at out foreign allies without full appreciating the cultural context. There are still plenty of mammy and Uncle tom references we can tackle on our own soil.

Have you heard of “Intouchables?” Judging from the storyline, do you think plots like these are racist?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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