“Represent”, reviewed: A hilarious attempt to redefine the French left

French miniseries Represent, streaming on Netflix, is turning towards cinema for practical reasons. With its six half-hour episodes, it is shorter than many feature films, and all six are directed by the same person, Jean-Pascal Zadi – who is also its star, its co-creator (with François Uzan) and the co-author of each episode (with Uzan and others). Zadi is a veteran director of independent films and music videos, as well as a rapper and comedian. His 2020 feature Simply Black, a comedy about the efforts of a well-intentioned but clumsy black French actor (played by Zadi) to turn his artistic frustration into political action, is among the most effervescent and resolutely original of recent French films . Like that film, Represent is something of a one-man show, albeit one that teems with a wide range of characters and locations, and encompasses a far-reaching vision of France as a whole.

Essentially, Represent picks up where Simply Black left off: the feature film, set in Paris, focuses on the shortage of black people and powerful portrayals of black life in the French media. “Represent”, on the other hand, is rooted in the everyday life of black people who are pushed into huge, ghetto-like housing projects in the suburbs of Paris. The series is based on its lack of real political power, due in part to the false and distorted images of black people that the media perpetuates – and the show dramatizes a comedic fast track to that power with some great conceptual exaggeration. Zadi plays Stéphane Blé, a youth counselor in a housing project who is transformed by a quick turn of events into a candidate for the French presidency. The series is full of extravagant (and sometimes far-fetched) infidelities, sharp satirical observations, and comedic performances that range from the antique to the caustic, from the self-deprecating to the preachy. Unlike Simply Black, Represent groans under the weight of convention or dictate, but its ideas are as strong as the film’s and even more diagnostically significant. Represent draws its overall power from a surprising and bold idea: an attempt to define and redefine the French political left.

The front runner in the presidential campaign, Éric Andréï (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a doughy, middle-aged white left-wing candidate leaning towards the centre; He is also the mayor of the suburb where Stéphane lives. When Éric arrives at Stéphane’s housing project for a photo op, campaigners and media in tow, Stéphane, a longtime acquaintance, bluntly and wittily challenges him about his politics and his attitude towards the project’s residents. The video of the dismantling goes viral, is broadcast on TV and Stéphane becomes an instant celebrity. When some news commentators jokingly introduce him as a candidate, a veteran political advisor, William Crozon (Éric Judor), who is also black, takes the idea seriously and recruits Stéphane to run for office.

The series satirically spotlights a wide range of political and social ills in France, particularly those affecting France’s deep-seated and largely unchallenged racism directed against non-whites of all ethnicities. A far-right candidate is fighting on a platform to expel “Arabs” (ie North Africans and people from the Middle East) from France. After Stéphane declared his candidacy, white people in a focus group linked him to “the projects”, drug trafficking and polygamy. The police are portrayed as hostile occupiers who stir up fear and sow chaos. (When Stéphane questions the police about the dubious arrest of a young man, he too is arrested, and the police attack peaceful protesters with pepper spray.) As for Éric, an ostensible socialist, Stéphane urges him to reallocate funds from social services to security measures and for the implementation of educational programs to prepare the children of the projects exclusively for manual work.

When Stéphane runs for office, he is not running to win, but to spread his message about the deprivation, frustration, oppression and exclusion of French people of color. He plays politics for media attention, while William himself has dubious motives to get Stéphane into a real and serious candidacy, which, fueled by Stéphane’s candor and charm, takes off. The men are joined by Yasmine (Souad Arsane), a graduate of a prestigious government school whose administrative skills and media savvy bring stability and credibility to a freestyle campaign. But Zadi delights in the harassment, ambiguity and insidiousness that takes place behind the scenes of political life with bitter humor. The underlying rumble of “Represent” is: Who benefits? It’s apparent from the start that the rise of a misfit left like Stéphane is a boon for the extreme right, and that Éric, as the butt of Stéphane’s nationally acclaimed joke, is more threatened by his candidacy than Stéphane’s supposed political opponents – and consequently Éric plays even more insidious games to undermine it.

Amidst the high-level machinations happening behind Stéphane’s back, Zadi presents exactly the kind of street stories the candidate himself is trying to bring to the national stage. Stéphane is married to Marion (Fadily Camara), who owns a beauty salon and is struggling to repay her loan for the business. The couple is trying to have a baby and relies on in vitro fertilization for it. (Scheduling doctor’s appointments — complete with Stéphane’s on-site delivery of sperm — surrounding his political commitments is an unavoidable element of comedy.) They share an apartment with Stéphane’s mother, Simone (Salimata Kamate), who hails from Ivory Coast; As a devout Christian, she and her friends express deep-rooted, if trivial, prejudices against people of Senegalese and Malian descent (including Marion). They casually sprinkle conversations with prayers and sometimes sprinkle holy water on people. What emerges are warm-hearted, sitcom-esque family banter and antics that reflect an essentially average French normality, yet thrown off balance by all the uncomfortable abnormalities in the plight of the black people living in the projects. Foreclosed opportunities lead an enterprising young man named Désiré (Homayoun Fiamor), Stéphane’s cousin, to become a local marijuana lord and then become entangled in political intrigues that wreak havoc on Stéphane’s campaign and marriage in equal measure.

Stéphane, too, is the target of some sharp satire – some of it dubious and unmusical, like when he admits drunkenly urging a woman into sex years ago in an incident Yasmine is investigating as rape, but reveals this with a dirty, dismissive humour , as completely harmless. The comedy hits cleaner in the repeated trope of Stéphane stumbling into a micro-aggressive faux pas towards Yasmine, who wears a hijab; At the beginning of a campaign trip to a remote, seemingly all-white rural village, where he asks her to take off her hijab, she replies, “Yeah, sure, no problem once you stop being black.” This trip, the most involved and deepest sequence of the series, leads to Zadi’s purest comedic inspiration when a church-going white couple unsuspectingly persuades Stéphane to sing gospel for them, and he delivers a dizzying, broken rendition of “Oh Happy Day” – a song he doesn’t knows.

The series features violence by a white supremacist (albeit with a comedic ending), fake police raids, large-scale hacking of contestants’ emails, and plenty of crude humor. But for all the exuberance of its fine-grained yet high-energy cast, and despite Zadi’s unabashedly powerful delivery at the center, “Represent” falls short of the artistic originality of “Simply Black.” In the feature film, the scenes tend to be lengthened, giving Zadi and his castmates time to riff while also giving the star plenty of room to maneuver – and the mockumentary base, which features Zadi in a role bearing his own name, allows for that , invoking a cunning, daring complicity with viewers. In contrast, Represent is clear-cut fiction that runs tightly, with generally short takes, impatient cuts and dialogue, and actions cut to the bone for informational necessity – yet vigorously conveys Zadi’s bold and invigorating political message.

To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that Stéphane’s closest rival is another leftist, Corinne Douanier (Marina Foïs), the environmentalist running on a “green” degrowth platform and making opposition to nuclear energy a touchstone of her campaign . She’s less the target of Zadi’s satire than the other contestants (only her dumpster diving comes in for a lopsided look) because her unimpeachable principles and honesty provoke not a clash of personalities but a serious clash of ideas (broadly framed nonetheless). Comedy). The series suggests the cruel absurdity of recommending degrowth to citizens who have been denied the benefits of the country’s years of growth. Though the tone remains bright in scenes in which Corinne and Stéphane compete, Zadi makes Stéphane his mouthpiece to define racial, ethnic, and religious equality as the core ideal of the left, the fundamental basis for economic justice and social progress. The series leaps out of its frame and into the real political arena by suggesting that it would take an outsider, an amateur like Stéphane to say this – that racial justice has little place in the mainstream French political establishment. ♦


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