“La Haine” and Racialized Nation-building

13 mins read

Two weeks ago, I watched the French film “La Haine” directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, which was released in the fall of 1995. The title translates to “Hate” in English. Kassovitz won Best Director at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival for the film, which features a throbbing French hip-hop score and grimy black-and-white cinematography. “La Haine” occurs during the violent unrest of the Algerian Civil War, in which systematically oppressed minorities rioted against a militaristic police force and against a society of nations that relied on racialized marginalization for ruling power.
In France, the summer of 1995 was violent and traumatic. France was beset by a series of shootings and bombings, which were connected to the Algerian Civil War and executed by Muslim groups who opposed the Algerian and French governments. The worst of the incidents occurred on July 25, when a gas bottle exploded at the Saint-Michel metro station, killing eight and injuring 117, and on August 17, when a bomb exploded at the Arc de Triomphe, injuring 16. The violent incidents continued into the fall of 1995.
The Algerian Civil War began in December 1991 when the popular Islamic Salvation Front party, or F.I.S., challenged the ruling National Liberation Front party in the national parliamentary elections. When first-round results forecast an F.I.S. victory, the N.L.F government cancelled the election citing fears that the F.I.S. would end democracy. The Algerian government banned the F.I.S. and arrested thousands of F.I.S. members, which impelled the formation of Muslim groups that began an armed campaign against the government. The conflict cost between 150,000 and 200,000 lives and ended with an Algerian government victory.
Between 1830 and 1870, France colonized Algeria through military rule. In 1962, the Algerian War of Independence, a decolonization war between French and Algerian — N.L.F. — military forces, ended with Algerian independence. After ceasefire, the N.L.F massacred Muslim Algerians who had served the French military and whom the French had denied repatriation to France.
The violence Algerian Muslim carried out against France in 1995 was a response to French governmental support of the N.L.F government and its military force.
The history of Algerian colonization is filled with racialized hypocrisies and the systematic and intersectional oppression of Muslims by French and Algerian ruling powers. The conflict between French, Algerian, and Algerian and French Muslim peoples is an example of the violent means and ends of racialized nation-building. The nation is a man-made geographic and sociopolitical structure. The nation is established upon the presumption of racial superiority, which is often white superiority, and the national systematic oppression of racialized peoples who are often called minorities and second-class citizens.
Before I continue, I must note two shortcomings.
First, I detailed a brief and incomplete history in order to discuss the process of racialized nation-building (I use the term racial and not ethnic, because ethnicities are often racialized). While it is possible to point out errors and inaccuracies in my account, I believe the process of racialized nation-building has repeatedly occurred as a pattern in numerous places and moments throughout history.
Second, I identify as a white, heterosexual, cis-male, Jewish American. I am writing from the perspective of someone who is privileged by not only American, but also Western cultural, political, and economic systems. I welcome critical feedback on the ways in which my thoughts are filtered by my perspective.
In Algeria, the French, operating under the presumption of their racial superiority, imposed the geographic and sociopolitical nation of Algeria upon groups of people who likely did not perceive the world as a map divided and governed by nations. The French believed they understood a better reality than the people who lived on the land the French called Algeria, which provides evidence of another belief: the French presumption of the racial inferiority of the peoples upon whom they imposed the nation of Algeria.
While the National Liberation Front won Algerian independence in 1962, they won the rights to a nation that was and is composed of racialized institutions, systems, and beliefs. In order to govern the nation of Algeria, the N.L.F. needed to shift the militaristic oppression which fuels the nation and its institutions to another ethnic group. On the day of independence, the N.L.F perpetrated massive violence against Muslim minorities in order to maintain the racialized nation and its systems. Furthermore, in 1991, the N.L.F instituted military rule in order to prevent Muslim governance in order to prevent the end of their democratic nation, a nation which relied on the violent interplay between superior and inferior racialized groups.
When Muslim groups attacked the French, they perpetrated violence against a power which maintained their systematic oppression. While the concept does not justify violence, it complicates the ways in which we consider terrorist attacks because, while perhaps under different names and guises, the violent patterns of racialized nation-building decorate the pages of Western history.
While I will be brief, I would also like to extend an understanding of racialized nation-building to include the United States of America. The U.S.A. was founded upon the presumption of white European superiority and the murder of Native American peoples and the enslavement of black peoples. While complex, Native American genocide and black slavery are both fundamentally connected to the founding of the American nation which created racialized systems of oppression that exist today. Structural American ideas were established upon the presumption of white male superiority and the oppression of racialized groups. For example, the infamous “All men were created equal.” In the modern day, the incarceration of millions of black people is the most visible institutional remnant of racialized nation-building of America.
The concept of the nation is racialized. Therefore, the institutions and systems which compose and maintain the nation are racialized.
I believe racialized nation-building is a product of weakness. We failed to do the hard work of empathy. We refused to understand the reality of others. We allowed our fear to become hateful violence.
“La Haine” is about three friends. Vinz is Eastern European Jewish, Saïd is Arab Muslim, and Hubert is black African; the friends are members of three groups who have been subjugated to the violent oppression of racialized nation-building throughout history.
They are children of immigrant families that live in in an impoverished French housing project in the suburbs of Paris, called la banlieue. The film depicts 20 successive hours in the lives of the three young men as they navigate the aftermath of a riot in which the police attacked their friend. They wander aimlessly through la banlieue, joking and arguing in search of distraction and entertainment. The friends find themselves subject to police surveillance which spreads hateful conflict through their home.
Vinz is filled with hate. He sees himself as an urban gangster. He imagines himself as Travis Bickle, from the 1976 American film “Taxi Driver” directed by Martin Scorsese; he aims a finger-gun at the mirror, and scowls. Hubert is musing and thoughtful. He contemplates la banlieue, wanting only to leave behind the institutionalized impoverishment and hatred which surrounds him, his friends, and his family. Vinz and Hubert care for Saïd, who seems younger, but mediates the antithetical perspectives which his two friends represent. Vinz and Hubert inherit the collective trauma of racialized nation-building and express their trauma through two opposing yet human perspectives: hatred and sadness, violence and escape.                 
The friends board a train to Paris, where they encounter further institutionalized hostility and distrust from the police and the public. A billboard reads, “Le monde est à vous.” The word “vous,” which to Hubert refers to the white powers, carries the collective trauma of racialized nation-building. The world is not his — it was constructed upon his oppression. Hubert sprays an “n” over the “v,” humanizing the turn of phrase: the world is ours.
Through the scene, Kassovitz highlights contrasting understandings of humanity: the status quo of is a racialized nation that enacts oppressive systems to maintain white superiority and racial inferiority and a hope, a dream, of a world without hate.
However, Kassovitz is attentive to the inescapability of the racialized nation, driving the audience to understand the naivety of Hubert’s hope. In the final scene, a policeman, holding a gun to Vinz’s head, accidentally fires. Hubert and the policeman aim their guns at each other. They both fire as the film fades to black.
Earlier, Hubert recounts, “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: so far so good, so far so good, so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”
The racialized nation casts the three friends into a state of perpetual freefall, which ends only in hateful violence. They cannot escape it, for it is encompassing; it is the substructure upon which modern society is erected. “It’s about a society falling,” says the narrator, as the film ends.
I believe we need to deconstruct and analyze, in academic and conversational contexts, the process of racialized nation-building and the racialized systems which shape modern reality. Kassovitz’ depiction of a racialized nation in violent conflict deserves greater recognition as radical truth. Perhaps some will suggest that nation-building is uniquely human, but I will argue that racialized nation-building is the intentional refusal to empathize and the triumph of hate over the greater human capacity of love.

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