France (2016) Dir. Roschdy Zem
No, not the Juliette Binoche/Johnny Depp rom-com but a bio-pic about the first celebrated black performer in French history, Rafael Padilla aka Chocolat. From young Cuban born immigrant to Parisian comedy sensation, his overlooked story is now shared with modern audiences via this tribute from actor-turned-director Roschdy Zem.
In the late 19th century a clown named Georges Foottit (James Thiérrée) auditions for a small rural circus run by Mr. and Mrs. Delvaux (Frederic Pierrot and Noemie Lvovsky), where a tall black immigrant known as Kananga (Omar Sy) plays the role of an African savage in their show. Foottit however recognises Kananga’s potential as a clown and lobbies to use him in a “black and white” double act.
Much to the Delvauxs’ surprise the act takes off, with Kananga re-christened Chocolat, attracting the attention of Joseph Oller (Olivier Gourmet), director of the Nouveau Cirque who signs the duo and takes them to perform in Paris. They quickly become a star attraction, earning big money and public adoration but the price of fame reveals its down side as Chocolat experiences racial abuse for being a successful black man in a white man’s world.
There is a tragic irony to the fact that the tale of a man who lived to entertain people and make them laugh is an often dark and gnarly dissertation on the subject of racism and loss of cultural identity. It’s very much a story of its time and like most explorations of this nature, its redeeming feature is to remind us how far race relations and racial equality have improved.
Chocolat shares some loose parallels with 12 Years A Slave in that both feature intelligent black men suffering the pernicious bigotry of a white society who felt that were acting above their stations. Padilla’s story differs in that he initially knew his place as an immigrant and didn’t see necessarily see fit to fight the hand that feeds him.
Flashbacks reveal that young Rafael used to spy on his father who was a butler for a rich white family, and subject to humiliating teasing for their amusement. If he didn’t show it in his adult life, it certainly stuck with him and became a prime motivation once he realised he was the real star of the double act and the one who got the bigger laughs.
The problem was their almost exclusively white audience saw Chocolat’s role as a black man getting his just desserts from his white superior. Created from a serendipitous moment during their debut at the Delvaux’s circus, Chocolat froze and the only way Foottit could snap him out of it was by kick him in the backside, yielding a huge laugh.
Remy’s script is careful not to make this seem like such an obvious problem, focusing on Chocolat and Foottit’s growing success, making Chocolat France’s first black celebrity whilst their routines revolutionise slapstick comedy both for clowns and in the cinema. A very rare clip of their performance that runs before the end credits shows their ingenuity which can be found in the DNA of many early legendary film comedians.
In many ways, Chocolat plays a smart game in essentially sending up the stereotypes imposed on black people by white folk to his advantage, taking their money while not letting on he is a keen reader of Shakespeare. It is not until Padilla is sent to prison for not having immigration papers where he meets Victor (Alex Descas) a black man who suggests in the act with Foottit, Chocolat is the “good negro” to Foottit’s “white master”.
The second half of the film sees the laughter quotient diminish in favour of the heavy drama of Padilla’s striving for respect against an impenetrable brick wall of racial intolerance. The suggestion is Chocolat wouldn’t have been a star without Foottit, Oller or any other white people “making him”, undermining the novelty – and exploitation – of his skin colour and his natural charisma
With so many dramatic liberties taken with the script, it is difficult to know how much actually happened and how much is Remy’s invention. One scene, for example, seems credible but is also heavy handed – it revolves around a poster depicting a hideous simian-like caricature of Chocolat. Padilla’s objections are dismissed by his white peers as an overreaction – and this is before he learns Foottit is earning twice what he is!
Albeit heavily dramatised, what Padilla endured was utterly reprehensible, enlightening us to the fact racism wasn’t limited to the US at the time, but occasionally it feels as if this focus is more agenda driven than detailing Padilla’s story. This isn’t to impugn the importance of this facet, and there is balance in showing success going to Padilla’s head and the price he paid for that too.
Omar Sy delivers a career defining performance in his portrayal of Padilla, utilising the comic flair showed in Untouchable with added physical slapstick dexterity for the clown routines, while his towering, hefty frame helps bring a dangerous edge to the dramatic frisson created in the second half. This is Sy’s film without question but his doesn’t carry it alone, the most sturdy support coming from an apt bit of casting in James Thiérrée as Foottit, apt because Thiérrée is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin!
For Roschdy Zem, more known as an actor, this is his fourth film as director, showing a feel for mood, presentation and pacing, naturally understanding the nuances of this medium. He is keen to replicate the period astutely and brings out the best of his actors, but it is admittedly a struggle deciding whether Remy’s intention was delivering a respectful biography or a scathing indictment of France’s embarrassing history of racism.
It would have been nice to know more about the man known as Chocolat, otherwise this is a compelling if shameful look at what should have been a positive and inspiring success story for the ages we can all learn lessons from.