Playing the Race Card on “Intouchables”, or: The American Misunderstanding

By Alan Mattli

Ten months ago, in September 2011, a movie was released in France that took the country by storm. It was called Intouchables and it became not only one of the country’s but also one of Europe’s biggest cinematic hits of all time. Writer-directors Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache adapted Philippe Pozzo di Borgo’s autobiographical book Le Second Souffle and presented the world with a heartwarming story of an African immigrant from a Paris banlieue who is hired by a rich tetraplegic (Pozzo di Borgo) to be his caregiver. The Weinstein Co. saw the movie’s potential, bought the rights, and distributed it in the United States – a U.S. remake may follow. It was met with mostly benevolent reviews – it holds a 76% “Fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes – and it seems to have struck a chord with audiences as well. However, from the beginning, there have been comments on how Intouchables is in actuality an offensive, stereotypical, manipulative resurrection of abhorrent racial stereotypes. Not only is this view aggravatingly ignorant on a whole number of levels, it shows how insecure Americans still are about the portrayal of racial relations.

First of all, Intouchables is a delightful movie. Even if you strip it from its numerous sociopolitical implications, it works as a thoroughly enjoyable, hilarious, bittersweet comedy about how two lost souls find solace and happiness in each other. Nakache and Toledano work with the age-old principle of casting a straight man – in this case, the minimalistic, wonderfully succinct François Cluzet as Philippe – alongside a funny man, a role perfectly fitted for Omar Sy, the son of a Senegalese and a Mauritian, who has been a known comic in France for twelve years now, as Driss. Both were rightfully nominated for a César award – Sy won it, beating Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) in a massive upset. They work perfectly as a team, comedically and emotionally. Most European critics loved the film and even Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, who insisted on the movie being a comedy, gave it his placet: the 61-year-old, who is paralysed from the neck down, was reported as saying “I’m clapping with both hands!”.

Shortly after its initial release, however, on 29 September last year, the critical consensus was ruptured by a more negative voice from across the pond. Variety‘s Jay Weissberg complained that the film is “offensive”, that it “proudly states it’s based on a true story, though tellingly, the caretaker in real life is Arab, not black”, that “Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term)”, and, consequently, that the movie as a whole “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens”. Indeed, “it’s painful to see Sy […] 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”. Earlier this year, renowned critic Roger Ebert, even though more open towards the movie’s charms than Weissberg, added to this take by deeming Intouchables “a simplistic reduction of racial stereotypes”, which in this regard bears some similiarities to Driving Miss Daisy but is the inferior film because the characters from the 1989 Oscar winner were “older” and “shaped by their times”, and thus were more in touch with racial reality.

This June, Vivienne Walt of TIME magazine responded to statements of this kind. Her article, devoted to the French banlieue problem and Omar Sy’s career, pre- and post-Intouchables, offers a much-needed relativisation: according to her, Weissberg’s rant against the perceived “Uncle Tom racism” is a “peculiarly American accusation to aim at a very French film but also a hint that the movie’s coarse charms may not translate as easily in the States as they have in Europe”. Walt addresses a crucial and well-known point here. Europeans and Americans have always had different ways of looking at films, especially ones concerning sensitive issues like war, sexuality, or race. The reason for the discussion at hand is an amalgamate of cultural discrepancies, a fatal misunderstanding of the film, and a hint of American arrogance and ignorance.

It is clear that critics like Weissberg and Ebert come from a different background than European, and particularly French, reviewers and audiences when it comes to the subject of racial relations. Both are conspicuously ill at ease in dealing with the issue. They are afraid of offending anyone by approving of a film that is, in their view, “offensive”. The United States, the archetypal melting pot of ethnicities, may pride itself in having elected its first black president in 2008 and in being on its way towards a utopian “post-racial” society, but such a hyper-sensitivity runs contrary to that ideal, it is “White Guilt” taken to an uncanny and disgustingly patronising extreme that subverts its original purpose. This is curious because the U.S. is not the only country with unresolved racial conflicts: America remembers its slave-holding days, it has the Trayvon Martin case and racist anti-Obama bumper stickers. France on the other hand, with its history of colonising large parts of Africa, faces a growing parallel society of immigrants living in the banlieues of its cities and a disturbingly vocal anti-immigration sentiment among its citizens. But it is Americans who are offended by a black man being the centre of comedy in a film like this. They see him as nothing but a “performing monkey”, a regress to the days when slaves entertained their masters, instead of merely a hilarious man, period. Indeed, reading these reviews one could get the impression that Toledano and Nakache derive laughs from the colour of Driss’ skin; Weissberg’s accusatory pointing out that Pozzo di Borgo’s real life caregiver was Arab suggests that Omar Sy was cast intentionally as a black comic relief. If anything, it’s handicapped people who should be offended by Intouchables, as Driss lovingly pokes fun at them at several points in the film – “telethon disabled”, anyone?

Of course, the film incorporates subtext that is meant to provoke debates about race, integration, and tolerance. But it seems like said critics look at the issue from the wrong angle. Weissberg sees the racist stereotype of a poor man with African roots who helps a handicapped millionaire to “get down”, somebody who entertains the upper class with his ethnic, lower class antics. Ebert mourns the lack of outlook the movie has because, according to him, it doesn’t embrace the solace a companion can give to a disabled person enough, despite the fact that one might argue the point that Intouchables does this with effortless subtlety. The more jarring conclusion Ebert draws from the film is his comparison of it with Driving Miss Daisy. Apparently, the French comedy lacks the connection to reality Bruces Beresford’s dramedy had. And this is the point where the criticism of the film becomes somewhat offensive itself. Ebert calls it a “soothing fantasy” and rejects the notion that it connects to reality in any meaningful way. He ignores the aforementioned anti-immigration sentiments that have been running rampant in France for years now; he ignores the often discussed problem of an aging French population; he ignores the fact that La Grande Nation faces a sociological paradigm shift – these are all subjects that are touched upon in Intouchables: Philippe, a member of the old French aristocracy, is not just immobile but completely detached from the real world; he is in need of assistance, both physically and psychologically; he receives it from an immigrant. This is not to say that an American reviewer should be aware of the intricate details of a country’s changing society but it shows a certain egocentricity that exists in the United States. This becomes particularly poignant when Weissberg concludes that “unthinking auds” may think the film is funny while predicting that European viewers will whole-heartedly embrace it. Cheers.

Intouchables seems not to have suffered from these attitudes. It is still going strong in various European countries, it currently ranks 72nd on the Internet Movie Database’s “Top 250 Films” list, and it seems to be able to find a small but inclined audience in the United States. Whether the turnout is significant enough to stave off a remake remains to be seen. Still, the reviews of Ebert, Weissberg, and other, less snide, more open, but still unenthusiastic critics – Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers, for instance – suggest that the cultural divide between the U.S. and Europe is still gaping and that some Americans still belittle other countries’ cinematic output. Finally, and probably most importantly, this overly quick flagging of something as “racially insensitive” hints at a more deeply rooted insecurity concerning race. So it might not be a bad idea to do as Driss does and to loosen up a bit.


Read Jay Weissberg’s review.

Read Roger Ebert’s review.

Read Vivienne Walt’s article.

Read Peter Travers’ review.


16 responses to “Playing the Race Card on “Intouchables”, or: The American Misunderstanding

  1. Thank you for a detailed review! I’ve sensed that there is something controversial about this movie… Goes on my ‘to watch’ list 🙂

  2. I just hate when RACE gets put into perspective. I believe that there was a casting for which the best was picked to interpret the Story.

  3. I just saw Les Intouchables on Sunday. In Canada, where I guess my racial sensibility is derived from a melting pot that doesn’t include slavery as a major ingredient. I loved the movie. I loved François Cluzet and Omar Sy in the principal roles. I laughed a lot. Because it was a very funny, heartfelt movie, not because Omar Sy was a middle-aged white American male’s idea of a parody an AMERICAN racial stereotype. And living in Canada as a native English speaker who also speaks French, I was able to go a bookstore the same day and buy a copy of Philippe de Pozzo di Borgo’s book, Le Second Souffle, in French. I am reading it now. The story is heartbreaking and heroic. If the American critics of the movie had a wider world view, instead of analyzing the world through their myopic and increasingly less relevant little lens, they would understand that race is not what is relevant about the story or the movie. The shared humanity of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou, despite all their worldly differences, is what is relevant about the story…

    BTW, you are a very good writer.

    • Thanks! The point you raise about American critics’ “little lens” is a great one, very well worded.

    • Patricia I loved your comment and you’re spot on about the American world view which is narrow and based on their parody of American racial stereotypes I watched this film and thought it was wonderful the humanity is what shone through for me in this film also. Thank you again for such an articulate comment. You too are a very good writer!!!

  4. I find that sad, as someone who rarely had to learn of those issues growing up in the northwest… People can be educated and enjoy the story with out prejudging why the character was changed and prejudicing the audience. The most important part, is the story.
    When you have “Experts” making inaccurate statements because of their own personal issues of race clouding their judgements, they are projecting their own insecurities and anger on a very captive audience. This was a proud movie for all involved and now its tainted with your own racism.

  5. Alan, I sincerely believe that your review is one of the most perfectly articulated and thoroughly coherent argument for anyone unable to enjoy such a charming, beautifully told and thought provoking film. Well done, in my opinion you are absolutely spot on with your comments. I find the stereotypical ‘racist’ cries disconcerting and totally uneccesary in themself. Again, great piece.

  6. Such an amazing amazing amazing movie!!!!!!

  7. I just watched the movie. I am an African American woman living in the US. I don’t feel the movie was racist. I assumed the real “Driss” may have experienced a poor lifestyle and saw it as a contrast to Phillipe’s richer lifestyle, not based on race, but different economic levels. I think the film shows how two people can really impact one another’s lives for good. They both contributed to one another is beautiful ways that obviously made them better for it. Bravo to the real people, the directors, and the actors. This is a story that needed to be told. It was shared in such a wonderful way. I was not offended by Omar’s part. I applaud him for a job well done! I hope it opens the doors for many more parts for him.

  8. It is indeed cringeworthy how Roger Ebert and Jay Weissberg are so hyper-sensitive to stereotyped images of blacks. The “Uncle Tom” charge is way over the top. They are the liberal self-anointed protectors of black people from racist imagery! They are certainly correct that racial stereotypes are rehashed in this film. But that is not all there is to the film. IMO, the more interesting subtext is the feel good idea for Europeans that aging impotent white men (who are the past) will preserve some of their spiritually dying culture by passing it on to virile young potent African black men (who are the future) – and have a little fun along the way!

  9. Pingback: American critics don’t like the “racist” pairing of Sy and Cluzet. | How About That Mass Media?

  10. are these reviewers f**king crazy? I saw this movie on netflix earlier today and I was choking up while watching this movie. This was a GEM

  11. Flying British Airways (Heathrow to Denver) in February 2013 I had the choice of watching this movie and it didn’t take long for me to be ‘hooked’. It was so moving, so touching, humorous and so very ‘hopeful’ for the ‘human’ condition. Like most people who watch ‘The Intouchables’ I was moved to tears and laughter and, on my journey I was able to watch it twice. To date, I have enjoyed the movie 5 times now – rarely do so many of the elements that make up a film – say it’s presentation, the story/script, director, choice of actors etc, come together so perfectly. It conveys many truths about humankind – shared compassion, sometimes the brutality of who we become, of who we are, the journeys we travel and where we end up. So, we live in the 21st century – and humankind still has a way to go before it can help it’s self and fellow man in the US, and the world over. Let me add… Mr. Mattli, you have written an excellent article here too!

  12. I just finished watching this movie on netflix, I didn’t like it, I loved it. I laughed out loud many times and I felt the emotions and I don’t speak French. I can read though, lol. Grafetul for subtitles in english. ‘m disappointed by the statements from the American critics.

    I am American and I am Black. I didn’t find this movie offensive. I didn’t even think about the ethnicities, or colors of their skin. It was just a movie about a paraplegic man and his caretaker. Obviously I see the skin tones, but I just didn’t care. Can we Not go looking for issues and put your own issues in the hearts and brains of others?

    I had just Tried to watch 2 movies previously, I couldn’t even finish them/ Can’t think of the name of them. So I searched 1 more time and saw this movie, I hesitated hoping it was not boring, lol, and it was superb to me.

  13. Just finished watching this minutes ago and I was curious about the opinion of other viewers, then I stumbled onto your page. Goog read, I like how you look at it from different perspectives. I was a bit flabbergasted when the movie ended and showed the Arabic man instead of a black male, I felt a bit fooled. Got me rethinking the whole concept of the movie.. but hey, it is a good movie after all, and I enjoyed it, enjoyed this write up as well. Keep on!

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