"The Intouchables". Transcultural Perspectives and the Dialectics of Post-Racial American Race Relations

Hausarbeit, 2018

23 Seiten


The Intouchables, Transcultural Perspectives & The Dialectics of Post-Racial American Race Relations

Abstract . One prevalent topic surrounding the question regarding the current rise in American anger is the debate over postmodern methods of cultural analysis in context to subjects such as film as well as a divide regarding the topic of race-relations. This analysis will explore the internal dialectics of American political ideology as a backdrop for the discussion on race in post-racial American culture. By viewing the 2011 French film ‘The Intouchables' as an example of synthesis and a representation of a methodological application of postmodern ideals in context to the dialectic of approaches to racism in a transcultural setting, the analysis seeks to critically assess both ideologies and show how the radicalization of either neglects to follow postmodern methods and fails to maintain the internal logic necessary to create actual political change. Thereby the analysis establishes causes and possible problematic side-effects of this cultural radicalization as well as possib le solutions and access points for further investigation.


In 2011, right after the premiere of the critically-acclaimed French film The Intouchables1 , Variety Magazine published a review which created a small ripple in the universe surrounding the question of conceptualizations of race relations in a transnational and transcultural context. Calling it a “claptrap” which “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens” and describing the film's protagonist as “a joyfully charismatic performer, in a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race” (Weissberg 2011) film critic Jay Weissberg makes his stance clear. While his polemical response does not reflect a universal American opinion of the film, it certainly correlates with one of two popular but essentially radicalized narratives of a self­proclaimed post-racial America, supported or partially supported also by articles and reviews published in the New York Times, Salon Magazine and by the perhaps most well-known American film critic Roger Ebert, whose review, while much more subtle, claims that the film offers the viewer only a “simplistic reduction of racial stereotypes” (Ebert 2012) . The film's origin country had an overall different response. An article in the Los Angeles Times from 2012 describes this divide of opinions between France and America by stating that it “has been breaking box-office records” in France, and even going on further to claim that “President Nicolas Sarkozy liked it so much that he reportedly wants to have the cast over for dinner at the Elysee Palace”. The article outlines that this divide is not only related to the film but to a completely different conceptualization of race relations altogether, coming to the conclusion that, perhaps, "it's just a different culture” (Lauter 2012).

Taking the divide as a background for this analysis, I will be taking a close look at two overarching transnational and transcultural narratives and their internal rhetoric. Focusing on the arguments made by Jay Weissberg in his now famous review of the film, I will be analyzing his critiques as well as looking at the cultural divide itself and how it relates to the transcultural differences in the conceptualization of race and racism. I am seeking to show, firstly, that there is a difference in the conceptualization of race relations in France and America and, secondly, that the reception of TI focalizes these differences. The main argument is that the American critique of the film's supposed condescension is due to its own internal dialectics, including a lack of synthesis regarding the issue of race.


In order to touch on the assertion that concepts of race and racism differ in America and France and to relate to the argument that the internal instability of post-racial America is part of the reason that the film was ill-received, this chapter will briefly summarize current conceptualizations of race relations before directly engaging in a description of the stereotypes and arguments outlined by Weissberg and some other critics. Focusing first on transcultural concepts of race and racism will establish a background for the analysis. Both France and America share the characteristics of a country which is ideologically divided. The following chapters will juxtapose American and French concepts of race relations and relevant political influences to outline differences

Post-Racial America

As outlined by several American scholars, such as Charles A. Gallagher, in the introduction to his book Racism in Post-Race America: New Theories, New Directions, “[t]he United States is schizophrenic when it comes to the national narrative about race.” He further elaborates on this statement by explaining that these “Jekyll-and-Hyde qualities manifest themselves in two very distinct, almost antithetical ways” (Gallagher ix). The American political grand-narrative which plays into this dichotomic intermingling of concepts is that of conservative vs. liberal. Of course, this is a vast generalization. In terms of a common conservative conceptualization of race relations, Gallagher states that “the first is a colorblind, post-race narrative wherein race and racism are depicted as having very little to do with shaping the socio-economic life chances of racism minorities” (ix). The idea here is that America does admit to having a history including the persecution of minorities, but this historical truth no longer affects present-day American concepts, making racism a “behavior of the past” (ix). The common liberal side is one which claims that race and racism are “social structures that continue to shape social mobility.” He explains further that “media and popular culture present a version of race relations that is a portrait of how we would like to see ourselves [.] while social scientists drawing on a reservoir of rather grim statistics chronicling racism and racial inequality lay out the “is” (x).

In her 2014 text BBFFs: Interracial Friendships in a Post-Racial World, Sarah E. Turner explains that “America is embroiled in a complex cultural moment in terms of race” (237). Leaning on Stuart Hall's ‘encoding/decoding communication model' (Hall 2006 163-73) , she explains that methods of portraying race are embedded in a system of “discourse that encompasses the messages ‘encoded' by and through the production [.] and the messages ‘decoded' by those watching” (237-8), implicitly making the political effect and discursive power of modern American media obvious: The “potential for the audience to misunderstand the image [...] undermines the ‘we are all the same' colorblind racism” (245) because otherness is still embedded in the cultural narrative portrayed by the American media, including the film industry. She calls this a “new racism” and claims that it is the “ideology of colorblind racism that is so ubiquitous in America today” (243). The effect of the hidden racism of films would then be the ideological misguiding of unknowing audiences and the perpetuation of the status quo.

Of course, this is a valid argument and a valid call for a more aware society whose intention should be to change the misconceptions about race and racism and to clear the field for new perspectives. However, the other side has its own valid arguments. An interesting fact used in arguments is often that colorblind ideology finds its roots in “classic liberal doctrines of freedom - the freedom of the individual created by the free capitalist marketplace” (Garr 108) And since both liberals and conservatives are defenders of capitalist ideology, this argument is difficult to oppose. Conservatives frequently accuse liberals of “using government to bring about the equality that only the free marketplace can bring” (109), which tends to put liberals in a difficult, ideological trap. Conservative media critics “complain about what they view as a decline of American values”, especially concerning freedom as a general trope. Social conservatives also believe that liberal intervention in the American value system is “facilitating the secularization and hedonization of America” (Rich 75). The valid argument here is that a utilization of government, and an overhaul of social structures including the interference in the film industry is a force which contrasts individual freedom.

It should be obvious now that political ideology seems to be finding its way into the terrain of media. The two-side political and ideological divide of American politics has a strong foothold in the perception of films. However, the difficulty lies in integrating both sides and forming an objective framework for film analysis: Aside from the valid argument that audience perception and understanding of film is influenced by political ideology, political ideology is also now influenced by a kind of drive for politicized scandal dominating the ‘decoding' and ‘encoding' habit promoted by a framework for analysis: “The American media thrives on scandal, blunders, errors of judgement, and intemperate statements. The racial angle of the situation adds to the attractiveness of the scandal” (Rich 78). Consequently, the aim should be to remain objective, to step out of oneself but also to self-reflect enough to know if a terrain of pure scandal-driven cynicism has been entered in which Hall's methods have been used against themselves.

Colorblindness in France

In contrast to America, “France is officially color-blind”. This means that “[r]acial and ethnic categories are not officially recognized [because] French laws prohibit officials from doing so” (Ware 186). The creation and maintenance of this policy has also become the dominant ideology. While this dominant French ideology, just as American colorblind ideology acknowledges “that there remains some discrimination against [minorities]” it is also implied that the severity of it is sufficiently low for there to no longer be a need for the voicing and opposing of racism as such (Ware 186). However, the lacking discussion is perceived by some as having resulted in a national atmosphere of unbearable silence regarding the “fight against structural racial inequalities and discrimination” which still exists:

Instead of confronting all dimensions of racism, the discourse focuses on the individual aspect of racism, failing to address historical, structural and institutional racism. Either accused of bringing division into society, of refusing to let go of the past, or worse, of upholding the belief that biological races exist, the introduction of race in the French [...] political and academic debate is usually met with resistance. (Roig 613)

Roig explains further that a comparison to post-race America is common in the academic debate over race-related issues. America is used as an example of why not to discuss race as a political agenda. Instead of referring to race, French politicians tend to divert the attention to issues such as “culture and religion” (613). An ideology-turned-policy is thereby conveniently displaced with a relocation of internal misbehavior toward the outside-world. Historical truths such as colonialism and “plantation enslavement” (614) thereby manifest and appear as a ‘foreign' narrative. The projected image of France therefore always supports an egalitarian ideal, “politically-correct discourse” (614) and the constant rationalization of this ideology via the memory of the Holocaust (614) and now also, America's misbehavior.

These realities relate to America in that they do not differ to such a degree as to be ignored altogether:

In 2009, France's 4.5 million public housing units represented 17 percent of the country's housing stock. [...] Immigrant households represented 9.5 percent of the total population in 2002 and they occupied 22 percent of the public housing units. About 29 percent of immigrant households lived in public housing, compared to 14 percent of non-immigrants.

Families from Turkey, the Maghreb, and sub-Saharan African had much higher percentages: 44 percent, 48 percent and 38 percent, respectively. (Ware 207)

In a comparison with America's inner-city ghettos France's ‘banlieues', neighborhoods where public housing facilities were built, are “not as vast and mono-racial [.] but share many of the same negative attributes and deleterious effects in residents” (208). Researchers have also found that leaving disadvantaged neighborhoods in France is much more difficult for groups which had been affected by residential segregation (185), another similarity to America's minorities.

The observable divide in France is not so much related to political agendas as is the case with America. The French race-related division is a silent one, taking place in the background and relating mostly to a lack of transparency and an attempt of diversion: The silence of French society when it comes to race-relations which conveniently diverts attention to the issue of immigration, or culture as a whole, rather than the realities of racism, leads to a much less colorful and non­input-based perspective. This also relates to film in that media influences the establishment as well as the perpetuation of stereotypes:

Powerful stereotypes have been attached to the term ‘immigration' which alludes to unskilled, non-European workers. The non-European immigrant population is regarded as a threat to national unity and identity (Ware 207)

The greatest risk with this displacement is one of “overlooking other modes of social exclusion”, where “culture has become the major site of struggle for new racist and anti-racist formations.” (Silverman 2). The political Left and Right are now a cultural matter. And just as with the American liberal vs. conservative divide on racism, the cultural Left and the cultural Right in France argue frequently about matters of immigration, with almost the same arguments. Both groups find themselves lost in a political paradox, claiming to stand for “the right of difference” (9). The Right, which frequently engages in discussions about the importance of national heritage but opposing immigration without wanting to be considered nationalist or, above all, racist, in any way, supports the semantic displacement of ‘race' with ‘culture'. The Left utilizes the same “right to difference”-ideology to support its anti-racism movements (9) but transforming aspects of individual freedom into collective moral superiority.

The difference to the American divide is a psychological one. By replacing the political appropriateness of the term “race” with that of “culture”, France has managed to turn the individual and physical into the collective and cultural, broadening its meaning, beyond what is observable to the “irreducible ‘nature' of human groups.” Unfortunately, “[t]he syncretic core of racist ideology remains intact” (13).


1 The rest of the text will refer to the movie with the abbreviation TI

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"The Intouchables". Transcultural Perspectives and the Dialectics of Post-Racial American Race Relations
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intouchables, transcultural, perspectives, dialectics, post-racial, american, race, relations
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Aneka Brunßen (Autor:in), 2018, "The Intouchables". Transcultural Perspectives and the Dialectics of Post-Racial American Race Relations, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1119067


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