'The Myth of a Colorblind France': Film Review

Myth-of-a-Colorblind-France
Courtesy of Myth of a Colorblind France
Exasperatingly unfocused.
9/25/2020

Alan Govenar looks at an assortment of Black American artists who sought to escape racism in France.

A deeply frustrating doc that only rarely engages with its ostensible subject, Alan Govenar's The Myth of a Colorblind France intends to examine the country's reputation as a haven for Black Americans, but more often plays as travelogue, checklist of Francophile artists and meandering collective memoir. Though scattered with worthwhile information and perspectives — most often coming from historian Tyler Stovall, Dean of Humanities at UC Santa Cruz — the unfocused film does far too little to connect the dots.

Most viewers will have heard of artists who spent brief or extended periods in France and found, as an organizer of Black tourism puts it here, "that people didn't consider their race as a primary factor." Though he isn't mentioned here, Miles Davis was vocal about the effect a brief stint had on him early in his career; Richard Wright moved there shortly after publishing Black Boy, and lived there the rest of his life.

Stovall traces the country's reputation back to Black U.S. soldiers in World War I, who were stationed there and "welcomed as equals" by locals who knew little about their social status back home. The next decade, Josephine Baker arrived and set the country on fire. The movie's discussion of the Baker phenomenon dovetails nicely with more general talk of jazz and its influence on visual and decorative arts — even if this section isn't thorough enough to prove a collector's assertion that European objects incorporating depictions of Black people were more respectful than the "bizarre things" then being sold in the States.

The film's opening scenes acknowledge French colonialism and the extent to which its economy depended on slavery in places like Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), which is described as "the most profitable slave economy the world had ever seen." One expects the film to explore in depth how a different physical proximity to slavery led to different social realities in the 20th century, but this narrative is mostly abandoned after being introduced.

The most we learn is that French prejudice has more to do with culture than skin color: Musician Karim Toure, who was born in Paris to a Senegalese immigrant father, reports being bullied in school; Black Americans say that while they're treated with respect, their friends from Africa and the Caribbean are not.

But this is a very small part of a doc that spends much longer on the personal histories of interviewees who left America for France and seem very happy about it.

Writer and visual artist Barbara Chase-Riboud spends a long time talking about the formal qualities of her sculpture and recounting her many travels around the world — interesting for her fans, out of place here. The late poet James Emanuel gets several scenes in which, like a Beat performer, he duets with a saxophonist. And graffiti artist Lin Felton spends most of his time talking about tagging NYC subway cars before finally describing how he's treated in Europe — but he lives in Amsterdam, not France.

A viewer using this as a springboard for independent study may well feel it's worthwhile, so long as the fast-forward button is handy. Tiny scenes introduce people whose stories are probably well worth hearing: painters Lois Mailou Jones and Henry Ossawa Tanner; academic Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, "the antithesis" of Baker-style sensuality; and Ada "Bricktop" Smith, whose Paris nightclub was as fashionable as New York's Jazz Age drinking dens.

But a bigger story never emerges from these blips of content. When Stovall, in one of his many welcome appearances, observes that an influx of white American expats led some Paris institutions to cater to them by discriminating against Black patrons, the film gives us a couple of sentences and then forgets the topic immediately.

When, at the very end, Govenar finally addresses 21st century demographics, we get roughly 60 seconds on the subject of French political hip-hop. And we hear the story from a white producer, not the immigrant rappers whose accounts of prejudice in France could probably fill their own movie.

Production company: Documentary Arts
Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Alan Govenar
Screenwriters: Alan Govenar, Jason Johnson-Spinos
Directors of photography: Didier Dahan, Robert Tullier
Editor: Jason Johnson-Spinos
In English and French
85 minutes