How La Haine redefined rebellion on screen

Watching La Haine as a young man had a seismic impact on journalist Kaleem Aftab. Here were cinematic rebels who were modern and relatable. Their rebellion was a survival mechanism against a system that stacked the odds against them.

2 September 2020

By Kaleem Aftab

La Haine (1995)

When approached to programme a season of films that would contextualise La Haine, the seminal Mathieu Kassovitz film that’s celebrating its 25th birthday with a 4K print makeover and rerelease, it was immediately apparent that the season should revolve around films about rebellion. 

After all, La Haine was dubbed an anti-police movie even before its first screening at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where the then 29-year-old French director won the best director gong. The security policemen on the red carpet there turned their backs on Kassovitz and his three stars – Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé and Saïd Taghmaoui – when they walked the red carpet. It was confirmation, if it were needed, of La Haine’s anti-establishment credentials. 

Kassovitz wrote La Haine in the aftermath of a riot that took place on 6 April 1993 following the death of a teenage boy, Makome M’Bowole, who’d been shot in the head while in police custody. La Haine begins with images of rioting and a news report that a young Arab has been left in a coma, brutalised by police – a storyline inspired by the death of Malik Oussekine in 1986.

In the black-and-white film, three best friends from different cultural backgrounds who grew up in the banlieue (the term for the impoverished areas surrounding large cities) want to see their friend in the hospital. But when they’re not allowed in, they go to Paris to watch a boxing match and meet myriad strange characters. All the while, a clock is ticking, but what is the bomb waiting to go off? 

The film had a profound impact on me. Like the protagonists, I grew up in social housing and came from a cultural background that felt like it alienated me from the mainstream; my skin colour and religion cast me as an outsider. The flip side is that my best friends were from different cultural backgrounds and heritages. Yet, we all recognised that we shared the culture of living in west London estates, dreaming of the day we were woven into the fabric of society. In our case, we also shared a love of movies. 

The Outsiders (1983)

My favourite film growing up, which I’ve watched more times than any other in my life, was Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I was a Greaser. The movie divides the world into rich kids, ‘the Soc’, and poor youths, the ‘Greasers’. It sides with those born on the wrong side of the tracks. The Greasers looked cool in jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets – clothes inspired by Marlon Brando’s look in The Wild One (1953). They did backflips off cars and had attitude. When Ponyboy and Johnny are in a hideout, they read books and talk about their aspirations and difficulties with a mix of anger and passion. 

At the time, I didn’t think that it was anything out of the ordinary that I wanted to be Dallas Winston. He had a remarkable disdain for the barriers between rich and poor. He’s the first to turn up for fights, and has the plan to help Ponyboy and Johnny lie low at a hideout. He’s loyal, tribal and ultimately selfless. Also, he was played by Matt Dillon, who was a fixture of S.E. Hinton adaptations with roles in Tex (1982) and, most memorably, in Rumble Fish (1983), which Coppola made back to back with The Outsiders. His character’s fate at the hands of the police in The Outsiders reinforced the idea of him as a danger to society, which would rather kill than listen to the message he spread. 

The Wild One (1953)

I saw myself in Dallas way more than in Brando on a motorcycle, or James Dean in a red jacket driving cars, or in the antiheroes of Easy Rider (1969). Their idea of what rebellion looked like was to be modern-day cowboys. It was very American and very safe. Dallas was more problematic. He looked at society and decided it wasn’t for him. 

When La Haine came out, I had a moment of self-realisation. While I could empathise with The Outsiders, Kassovitz had actually put characters like the ones I grew up with on the cinema screen. It was people and a world I recognised. I tend to think it’s an indictment of cinema that, up to this point, what a British teenager with South Asian parents was being served up as the epitome of rebellion was white normative. The awakening started with Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Do the Right Thing (1989). Nonetheless, La Haine’s world seemed more recognisable than New York.

As the years rolled by, I realised that something clicked not just with me, but with filmmakers at the time. The idea of rebels on screen started to change. Now they were more exciting characters, dismissive of the norms of society, and no longer just modern-day cowboys. These rebels didn’t exactly go back to the original sense of the word, in that they wanted to overthrow those in power. They recognised that society was so set up for them to fail that rebellion is part of survival. 

Divines (2016)

After La Haine, films like Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) and Dheepan (2015) became possible, or Houda Benyamina’s Un Certain Regard winner Divines (2016) and Gabriela Pichler’s marvellous Amateurs (2018). These characters were not just rebelling for freedom. They have to take on a system that’s institutionally designed to keep them down.

The task I was set when programming the season was to tell this story in 14 movies that, because of coronavirus, were available on digital prints. And I had to tell it through La Haine, and not my personal whims. So, sadly, The Outsiders was immediately out. I was aided somewhat by an interview I conducted with Kassovitz for the cover of Sight & Sound in which he explained some of his influences on La Haine. 

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Kassovitz said that with every film that borrows from a film, when you watch it you find it borrowed from another film, and so on, until we arrive at a single film by a Russian director. That film, the 1925 Soviet silent Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein, seemed the perfect place to start the season as it depicts a rebellion in the real sense of the word and is a masterclass in editing and juxtaposition. 

The real touchstone for Kassovitz was New Hollywood, which is unsurprising as this was the era when American movies moved away from adoring the cowboy and cemented the idea of the antihero. This was a cinema of alienation and necessity. Kassovitz made his sound team on La Haine watch and embrace sound editor Walter Murch’s incredible work on George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). It also helps that the film is about the end of innocence, highlighting the American dream myth through the story of four friends over 24 hours.

Blue Collar (1978)

Paul Schrader features heavily in the season. He wrote Taxi Driver (1976), from which La Haine referenced the ‘You talking to me’ scene. It’s also a film about New York in the way that La Haine is about Paris. But video essayist and programmer Leigh Singer also reminded me of Blue Collar (1978), Schrader’s directorial debut. It was evident that this film was an even closer template for La Haine, with three friends from different backgrounds who discover through a robbery that the more significant crimes are happening above their heads, by people purporting to be on their side. Also, it’s as funny as La Haine. 

My partner was reading Sally Field’s excellent autobiography In Pieces and asked me if I’d seen Norma Rae (1979). I hadn’t even heard of it. We sought it out, and when I watched it, I was amazed that this gem of 1970s cinema had escaped my attention. I was not surprised to find that this story of a liberated mother-of-three, fighting the patriarchy and supporting the civil rights movement, had not been championed by critics at the time. Looking back at the reviews, the dismissals that it was schmaltz and saccharine irked. No wonder the cinema canon needs a good overhaul. Norma Rae should be revered. Without Norma Rae, would there be Thelma & Louise (1991)? 

Norma Rae (1979)

I put in Sara Driver’s Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Basquiat (2017) as it’s a documentary made at the time that hip-hop and graffiti became part of the story of New York, and these movements would have a profound impact on La Haine.

La Haine didn’t come in a vacuum and was part of the zeitgeist. In 1991, Isaac Julien made the queer classic Young Soul Rebels, which had pirate radio stations and police abuse. Cinema was changing. Three French films by white directors offer a broader perspective on France and her relationship to other cultures. These projects jumped out as essential to show how La Haine changed cinema: Claire Denis’ masterpiece Beau Travail (1999) looks at colonialism and male desire; Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner Dheepan and Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014) took the themes of La Haine and pushed them into exciting directions. 

Les Misérables (2019)

The final trio of films, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007), Gabriela Pichler’s Amateurs and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables (2019), demonstrate how cinema about young people infused with the rebellious spirit spread around the world. Persepolis tells of Satrapi’s life story, alienated in Tehran and Paris. Pichler’s underrated teen classic Amateurs borrows shots from La Haine as it shows how the underprivileged youth tell the true story of a place. Then Les Misérables, which is also released in the UK this month, highlights how La Haine’s message is as meaningful now as it was 25 years ago.

  • La Haine is back in cinemas nationwide from 11 September
  • Les Misérables is in cinemas from 4 September