'Street Flow' ('Banlieusards'): Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Has a good heart but lacks skills.

French rapper Kery James co-directed and stars in this Netflix movie about three brothers from the banlieue whose lives come crashing together.

Although Netflix is officially banned from screening films in Cannes' main competition, the company has made major headways in France this year, signing up 5 million subscribers as of February and launching a slate of original Gallic TV series and films.

In terms of the latter, though, Cannes really has nothing to fear. Unlike in the U.S., where the likes of Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach and Steven Soderbergh have made their latest movies with the streaming service, we’ve yet to see a French auteur of any caliber do the same. This may be because a new Netflix film is more or less precluded from theatrical release in France, or else has to wait three years between playing on the big screen and the small one. So unless the laws change in the future, le cinéma de Netflix is likely to remain what it’s been thus far: one of noticeable mediocrity.

The latest case in point is Street Flow (Banlieusards), a totally amateurish Boyz n the Hood-style drama from French rapper Kery James, who wrote, co-directed (along with Leïla Sy) and plays one of the leads. Released on the streamer in October, the movie has received some attention thanks to James’ notoriety and the film’s topical subject matter, which concerns the Paris suburbs and the difficulties faced by its minority population.

But as much as the streets of Street Flow seem to be paved with good intentions, the pic itself is naïve and highly unsubtle, featuring a mixed bag of performances, risibly on-the-nose dialogue and a story so generic that it could have been written by a Netflix algorithm. At best, it serves as another testament to the creative drive of the banlieue, from which has emerged a number of impressive films over the past decade. One of them, Les Misérables, is playing in French theaters right now, and unlike Street Flow it has a power and urgency that demand to be seen in a theater.

Taking a very rudimentary approach to the genre, Street Flow follows three brothers from the wrong side of the périphérique — or ring road — that separates Paris from its working-class suburbs. (The French title, Banlieusards, literally means “guys from the banlieue.”) There’s the drug dealer, Demba (played by James), who’s the oldest, toughest, but also the one who broke bad. There’s Soulaymaan (Jammeh Diangana), the middle child who’s always done the right thing and is on his way to becoming a successful lawyer. And there’s the youngin', Noumouké (Bakary Diombera), who could go either way at this point, but seems to be headed in the wrong direction.

Over the course of the film, the three brothers’ lives will intersect in obvious ways, with Demba’s drug deals putting everyone at risk, especially when his crew takes out a rival gangster. Meanwhile, Soulaymaan falls for a fellow law student, Lisa (Chloé Jouannet), with whom he’s competing in an oratory competition, while Noumouké gets suspended from school for fighting and then starts committing robberies. And let’s not forget the boys’ hardworking immigrant single mom — a touching if rather heavy-handed Mama Roma who suffers dearly as she tries to keep her sons in line, eventually winding up in the hospital.

With few surprises, the plot points of Street Flow converge in the third act as Demba’s crimes come back to bite him at the same time that Soulaymaan makes his big speech during the national Concours d’éloquence, which plays like a slam poetry session mixing legalese, ethics and philosophy. (The Concours was featured in two French movies released back in 2017: Yvan Attal’s hit dramedy Le Brio and the documentary Speak Up, which was co-directed by Les Misérables' Ladj Ly.)

Soulaymaan’s discourse concerns whether the "State is solely responsible for the situation of the French suburbs." It’s a worthy topic but feels way too deliberate, resulting in a long sequence — clearly meant to be the film’s centerpiece — where, instead of illustrating their themes through complex characters and strong plotting, James and Sy do so by having them blurted aloud for something like 10 full minutes. Even if Diangaga and Jouannet acquit themselves well during the oratory, the whole scene underlines how much Street Flow tries to get its point across with words rather than images and stories.

As an actor, James has a laid-back way of playing the bad seed Demba, which is a nice antidote at times to your typical street thug. Still, it hampers the moments when he’s actually supposed to come across as a tough guy, undercutting the pic’s sense of menace. The promising Diangaga is better as Soulaymaan, who gradually becomes the film's main character. Two scenes, one where he encounters a pair of hoods on the bus and another where he’s harassed by local cops, say much more about life on the periphery of Paris than all the speechifying the directors wedge into their narrative.

Tech credits include editing by longtime Claire Denis collaborator Nelly Quettier and cinematography by veteran Pierre Aïm, who shot one of the first breakout banlieue movies, 1995's La Haine. (That film's director, Mathieu Kassovitz, plays a cameo role here as a boxing trainer.) Certain scenes look overlit — or is that just how they appear on a laptop? — while the use of drone shots is meant to add scope to a movie that ultimately feels contained by its own clichés.

Production companies: Les Films du Fleuve, Les Films Velvet, SRAB Films
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Kery James, Jammeh Diangana, Bakary Diombera, Chloé Jouannet, Slimane Dazi, Mathieu Kassovitz
Directors: Kery James, Leïla Sy
Screenwriter: Kery James
Executive producers: Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral, Marie Lecoq, Frédéric Jouve
Director of photography: Pierre Aïm
Production designer: Pierre Deuboisberranger
Costume designer: Yasmine Akkaz
Editor: Nelly Quettier

In French
96 minutes