French Actress Aissa Maiga on Her Eye-Opening Bestseller 'My Profession is Not Black'

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Maiga and fifteen other black actresses contributed to a collective book that decries racial prejudice in the French film industry.

Released in France prior to this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Aissa Maiga’s collective book My Profession is Not Black (Noire n’est pas mon metier) quickly became a national sensation. For the very first time, a group of black actresses spoke up about their experiences with racism in the French film and theater industry, recalling humiliating casting sessions, blatant sexual harassment and the many prejudices they have had to face in order to practice their craft — which they still do with difficulty.

The 43-year-old Maiga, who invited 15 of her follow comediennes to participate in the project, has been acting in films since the late '90s and is perhaps best known in the U.S. for her role in Cedric Klapisch’s Russian Dolls. She’s also worked with major auteurs like Michael Haneke (Cache, Code Unknown), Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako) and Michel Gondry (Mood Indigo), and will star in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s upcoming directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

“I’ve often asked myself why I’m one of the only black actresses to work in a country as racially mixed as France,” is how Maiga begins a book that describes how French filmmakers remain prejudiced when it comes to casting roles and creating black characters. Whether or not this cri de coeur will have a significant effect on local production is yet to be seen, but its success proves that it could be a step in the right direction. Speaking to THR from the set of the upcoming Irish crime series Taken Down, Maiga discussed what inspired her to write Profession and what she hopes it will change.

I feel like My Profession is Not Black reveals many truths about the French film and theater industry that have been known for a while but never really discussed in public. What gave you the idea for the book?

A little over a year ago, someone sent me the link for a French documentary called Speak Up! (Ouvrir la voix) by Amandine Gay, and the first thing I saw on screen was my name, Aissa Maiga, with a big question mark next to it. In the film, they asked several black French women to name five black French actresses, and none of them were able to do it …The only one they could name was me. I was really disturbed by this huge void that existed, and so I decided to write a text about what it was like to occupy this strange place — to be one of the exceptions that proved the rule. I decided to include texts by other black actresses as well, because many of them had said things that stuck with me, that were similar to what I had lived through. It became clear that the book should be made up of different voices, with all of them relating their experiences through the same prism: that of a black actress in France.

We often think of France as a liberal country, yet what’s related in the book is very different, especially in regard to the film industry.

I think France is actually a very liberal country, which is why the paradox that exists in the movies is all the more troubling. France is not segregated like America was in the 1950s, nor is it ruled by an apartheid regime like South Africa once was. It’s extremely multicultural, and in many ways the French republican model [a political system that favors collective values over individual identities] functions quite well, although such ideals wind up obscuring other realities — not only in the movies but in many different industries. Anyone who doesn’t correspond to the norm, that is to say to the white norm, can tell you how they have been discriminated against at one time or another, and how they were unable to speak up about it.

One thing that keeps coming up in your book is how black actresses are typecast into the same roles. Even if they were born and raised in France, they are forced to play immigrants and take on heavy African accents.

What’s crazy is how playing the role of an African woman somehow becomes degrading, because in the majority of cases such roles are pure caricatures. I’m African — I was born in Senegal and came to France when I was 4 — and I think it’s important to portray Africans and immigrants onscreen, because their stories need to be told. What I’m against is the kind of stereotypes that we see again and again in movies, and the fact that roles for black women are often limited to the same clichés.

At the start of the book, you explain how you were cast in your first play at the age of 21 and thought “everything was possible.” Then, you write: “Over the next 25 years I came to understand how I was black before being me.” Many of the other actresses in the book tell the same story.

The prejudices started before I even became a professional actress… I remember when I was trying to enter the national drama academy in Paris. One of my teachers told me it wasn’t possible to audition for roles like Andromaque [from the play by Jean Racine] or Camille [from the play Horace by Pierre Corneille]. He said that, personally, it wasn’t a problem for him, but that the jury would be too distracted by the fact that I was black to properly judge my performance. So sometimes the prejudices were in school, although they were much more apparent when I entered the film industry. I think the most surprising thing for me was to discover how truly conservative the industry was. And I think that’s a surprise for the reader as well.

What’s surprising is to learn how certain members of the French film industry — directors, producers, casting agents — see themselves as being extremely liberal, whereas there’s a latent conservatism, and even a racism, in the way some of them work, or in the movies they make.

For a very long time, the film industry here in France was almost exclusively white. Not only white but from the upper classes, and they only mixed with people who looked like them. They could actually be very liberal in a political sense, and would even go out and protest for the rights of foreigners or immigrants. And so when it came time to portraying black characters onscreen, those characters would almost always be foreigners working menial jobs, because that’s all they really knew about.

There would never be a black female lawyer or doctor…

Or just anything that wasn’t inferior!

One incident you describe in the book is how you were cast as the female lead in the 2007 romantic comedy The Age of Man. Then when the film came out, you were horrified to discover that they only put the male lead on the poster, which almost never happens for a rom-com. You did another rom-com in 2014 called Anything for Alice where, this time, you shared the poster with the male lead. Have things finally changed in France?

A few things have definitely changed. First of all, there’s a new kind of comedy that arose here over the last decade or so called la comedie communataire, with films like Intouchables or Serial (Bad) Weddings showing how two communities — such as the black and white community — that are supposed to be incompatible wind up joining hands. Whether you like such films or not, they are usually cheap to make and extremely successful, and they offer major roles for black actors. It’s basically the only genre in French cinema where black performers have the real chance to evolve.

Over the past few years, the #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo campaigns have tried to combat prejudice and inequality in Hollywood. What do you think can be done in France, especially concerning black actresses?

We’ve definitely been inspired by what’s happening in the U.S., although the dynamic in France is very different. African Americans have been in America for a much longer time than black people have been in France, where they’ve only represented a significant demographic for the past few decades. And black people in France come from many different places, with different languages, religions and cultures, so it’s hard to unify that into a single movement. It’s only been very recently that there’s this general awareness forming in the black community here, or that people from the black community are starting to occupy positions of power. Now, it’s finally possible to make changes in a more direct way, whether through social media or writing a book. But I still think we have to step away from all the buzz and really take the time to reflect about what the best course of action is, to really think about how we can move forward. As a community, we need to create a rhythm that’s all our own.