‘Les Misérables’ Marks France’s First Oscar Submission By a Black Filmmaker

Ladj Ly's insurgent drama beat out favorite, Celine Sciamma’s 18th-century-set romance, 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire.'
"Les Misérables"
Ladj Ly’s politically-charged feature debut, “Les Misérables,” is inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences as the son of a Malian immigrant. Ly grew up in the harshness of the banlieues, in a commune east of Paris, called Montfermeil. His Montfermeil isn’t all that different from Victor Hugo’s, whose 1862 novel is a source of inspiration. It remains grim, comprised of poor and disenfranchised people — primarily African immigrants — who often clash with the authorities. The filmmaker set out to capture the realities of that world, in an effort to both counter incomplete narratives, and to inspire revolution. At the center of “Les Misérables” are three members of an anti-crime brigade who are overrun by youth while trying to make an arrest. When a drone captures the encounter, it threatens to expose the truths of everyday life in the community. It’s a film with roots that stretch back to Ly’s activist teenage years, inspired by the violent 2005 Paris riots, which involved youth of African descent, in a three-week uprising stoked by increased unemployment, poor housing conditions, and routine harassment at the hands of the police.
SRAB Films/Rectangle Productions/Lyly films

Ladj Ly’s politically-charged feature debut, “Les Miserables,” which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, has been selected by France’s Oscar committee as the country’s submission to the international feature film competition. While much has been made about the decision to submit the film over “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the decision by the committee is a historical one for the country, as it marks the first time that France has chosen a film from a black filmmaker to represent the country at the Academy Awards.

Based on his powerful 2017 short film of the same name, “Les Misérables” is inspired by the violent 2005 Paris riots, which primarily involved youth of African descent. The three-week uprising was rooted in rising unemployment among the youth, who were mostly confined to poor housing estates, and the harassment they routinely experienced at the hands of the police. At the center of the film are three members of an anti-crime brigade who are overrun while trying to make an arrest.

The film beat out two other frontrunners for the submission, both of which were directed by women — Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait” and Alice Winocour’s “Proxima.” However, “Les Misérables” is the timeliest of that trio, grounded in the realities of the country’s current socio-political climate; France, and Europe as a whole, continues to struggle with a migrant crisis rippling throughout its society.

"Les Misérables" director Ladj Ly
“Les Misérables” director Ladj Ly

“Les Misérables,” which was bought by Amazon for U.S. distribution earlier this year, earned mostly positive reviews at Cannes. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich’s wrote that it was “a gripping and grounded procedural that probes the tensions between Paris’ anti-crime police and the poor Muslim population they torment and suppress.”

Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga lead the film’s cast. France has submitted films for the Best International Feature Film Oscar since the award’s inception in 1956, and has seen more than half of their entries end up with nominations. As of September 2019, France has submitted 64 films for consideration. Of these, 39 went on to be nominated, and nine have won the Oscar.

Notably, while Ly is the first black filmmaker to see his film selected to represent the country, he isn’t the first of African descent. “The Intouchables,” which was France’s submission for the 2012 Oscars, was directed by Olivier Nakache (who is of Algeria descent) and Éric Toledano (who is of Moroccan descent).

The French submission is decided annually by the Centre national de la cinématographie, affiliated with the French Ministry of Culture.

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