Too Black To Be French?

    • Industry
    • November 22, 2016
    • By Melanie Goodfellow

    French-Ivorian filmmaker and writer Isabelle Boni-Claverie is the granddaughter of one of France’s first black magistrates – Alphonse Boni, who left his native Ivory Coast to study law in the 1930s, when it was still a French colony.

    In 1937, he married a white French woman, Rose-Marie Galou. The union, one of France’s first mixed marriages, was so controversial the ceremony took place in the dead of night. Some 80 years later, Boni-Claverie explores what it means to be black in France today, examining how racism in the country is intertwined with its colonial past.

    Her perspective is unusual. Brought up in Paris by her aunt Danielle Boni-Claverie, a former journalist and today a prominent Ivory Coast politician, and her adopted father jurist George Claverie, she grew up in a wealthy, privileged environment. 

    Early on in the film, she reveals she used to holiday with Netherlands monarch King Willem-Alexander, showing a snap of them on a boat together as children. 

    But this background did not protect her from discrimination. She recalls being mortified after she was cast in the role of Balthazar in the school nativity play because she was black. “This is a subject that has affected me directly throughout my life, and something I have reflected on for a long time,” says Boni-Claverie.

    “There's this belief, in France at least, that race discrimination is in some way a class issue and that as people of colour rise up the social ladder they no longer come up against discrimination. But my personal experiences show this is not the case," she says.

    “Even when you come from a privileged background like me, you're discriminated against because you're perceived first and foremost as black, which gives you an inferior status in the French imagination.”

    You Know You're Black When...

    The catalyst for the film came in 2011 after she helped mobilise public protests on the Champs-Elysées in Paris against perfume-maker Jean-Paul Guerlain when he made racist comments on a prime-time news show. She ended up getting involved in negotiations with parent company the LVMH group to introduce measures promoting diversity.

    “At the end of this process, it seemed to me the best way for me to engage in this issue was as an artist and through my creativity, and that's how the film came about,” explains Boni-Claverie. 

    Alongside recalling her own personal journey and that of her grandparents, Boni-Claverie looks at the wider context of France, its colonial past and the situation today. She intercuts the film with a series of sometimes shocking testimonies from young black French citizens, subtitled ‘You Know You're Black When...’. They range from a waitress who recalls being insulted by a party of far-right National Front members to a man who was spat at when he offered his seat to an elderly lady on a bus. 

    The film first aired in France in the summer of 2105, but the global expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the rise of racist sentiment across Europe and the US – which is impacting long-time ethnic minority citizens as well as new arrivals – keeps its relevance fresh for domestic and international audiences today. 

    With that in mind, Paris-based documentary sales specialist Wide House recently acquired international rights and expects it to sell well to broadcasters worldwide.

    Too Black to Be French?

    • Isabelle Boni-Claverie
    • 2015
    • 52 min

      Filmmaker Isabelle Boni-Claverie examines racism in France on the basis of her life story and the history of colonialism.

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