'Tout Simplement Noir': Film Review

Gaumont/C8 Films
An insightful if underdeveloped satire on race and entertainment.

Jean-Pascal Zadi's feature debut follows an actor and activist who attempts to organize a Black Lives Matter-style protest in Paris.

When the protests over the killing of George Floyd ripped through the U.S. in late May, they quickly found resonance abroad — perhaps nowhere more than in France, where the 2016 death of 24-year-old Adama Traoré while in police custody (in an incident with similarities to the Floyd case) gave the French their very own reason to take to the streets.

Such protests continue to this day in Paris and other parts of the country, which makes the release of the mockumentary Tout Simplement Noir (Quite Simply Black) all the more timely. Co-directed by and starring Jean-Pascal Zadi, who shot the film before the recent demonstrations began, this cleverly conceived if rather clumsily executed satire offers up a premise that mirrors real events in fascinating ways: a wannabe actor, JP (Zadi), tired of all the bigotry and racism in France, decides to organize a “Black Man’s March” to raise overall awareness.

The hitch is that, whereas now JP would likely find thousands of adherents to his cause, in Tout Simplement Noir he can barely scrape together a few dozen demonstrators — let alone get anyone, whether Black, white, Arab, Jewish, male or female, to agree on the idea of a protest in the first place. By underlining how racism remains a hotly debated topic in France, with many still coming to terms with their country’s colonial past, not to mention the prejudices of the present, Zadi slyly reveals why the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité is much more of an ideal than an objective truth. 

As powerful as that sounds, the movie itself doesn’t always live up to its ambitions, playing like a loose assembly of sketches that are by turns hilarious and tedious, with a third act that fizzles out and an ending that doesn’t land smoothly. Like many French comedies, Zadi’s debut suffers from development-itus: It’s a good pitch that could have used a few more rounds in the writers’ room (the script is credited to Zadi and Kahem Guerma, in collaboration with Fabrice Eboué and co-director John Wax), with some gags taken so far that the laughs run out way before the jokes end.

Still, a fresh face like Zadi’s, and a fresh idea like the one behind Tout Simplement Noir, is a welcome addition to a Gallic cinema landscape that tends to lacks diversity. Indeed, some of the film’s best scenes pinpoint the hypocrisy of a movie industry where Black men and women are often cast in stereotypical roles (the subject is also evoked in actress Aïssa Maïga’s bestselling book My Profession is Not Black) — an idea made loud and clear in a standout sequence that finds filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) lambasting Zadi, whose parents hail from the Ivory Coast, for not being African enough to star in the slavery epic he’s putting together. 

Such scenes explain why Noir has created a fair amount of buzz since its local release, scoring decent numbers despite the low attendance in France’s socially distanced cinemas (which officially reopened in late June). The film is probably too stuffed with cameo appearances and Gallic pop culture references to work outside French-speaking territories, though as a comparison between how issues pertaining to race are perceived in France vs. the U.S. and elsewhere, it makes for instructive viewing.   

Shot to look like a documentary, with cinematographer Thomas Brémond tracking Zadi’s every movement, the film has us follow the actor and activist as he struggles to put together his march, which is set to take place in Paris' Place de la République. Things are complicated from the get-go, beginning with JP’s own wife (Caroline Anglade), who seems annoyed by her husband’s inability to organize a protest and take care of household chores at the same time, though she winds up sticking by his side when the going gets tough.

More difficult are the various celebrities JP tries to bring on as sponsors or supporters, each of them questioning the validity of his cause. Some of the women he encounters, including comedian Claudia Tagbo, wonder why his march only includes men. The rapper-actor JoeyStarr (Polisse), whose origins are Black, white and Asian, asks JP what his precise definition of “Black” is for the protest. “Nappy hair, dark skin,” JP replies, though it soon becomes evident that such a category won’t hold.

Elsewhere, directors Fabrice Eboué (Case Depart) and Lucien Jean-Baptiste (First Snow) fight about their respective work, questioning which of the two is more of a racist or a sellout. (Both have been commercially successful.)  A running gag involves Intouchables star Omar Sy, undoubtedly France’s most famous Black actor and thus a man who's hard for JP to reach. (When Sy does finally appear, the scene is a bit of a letdown.)

Other encounters include the standup comic Fary, who becomes JP’s social media-friendly sidekick yet never stops criticizing his methods; the hitmaking rapper Soprano, who invites JP in for a recording session, only to have the latter spit out rhymes criticizing environmentalists; and a meeting with Arab actor Ramzy and Jewish actor Jonathan Cohen that goes terribly wrong, yet remains one of the comic highlights.

If the laughs are never abundant enough, and the film feels undercooked in the end, Zadi’s efforts to use humor to explore what it means to be a Black man in France are highly laudable — in fact, they’re quite remarkable given how little French cinema has addressed such topics in the past. Instead of fully embracing the Black Lives Matter spirit, Zadi questions what that spirit means in a country meant to be colorblind, but whose realities have constantly proved otherwise.

This is perhaps why two of the most memorable scenes in Tout Simplement Noir are not ones involving bickering celebrities or botched TV appearances, but ones where we see JP harassed and restrained by Paris cops, in moments that cross the line from comedy to contemporary tragedy, reflecting the case of Traoré and many others in past years. It’s as if Zadi were saying, to quote The Smiths song, that the joke isn’t funny anymore.

Production company: Gaumont
Cast: Jean-Pascal Zadi, Fary, Caroline Anglade, Omar Sy, Joeystarr, Soprano, Mathieu Kassovitz, Claudia Tagbo, Fabrice Eboué, Lucien Jean-Baptiste

Directors: Jean-Pascal Zadi, John Wax
Screenwriters: Jean-Pascal Zadi, Kamel Guerma, in collaboration with Fabrice Eboué, John Wax
Producer: Sidonie Dumas
Executive producer: Mark Vadé
Director of photography: Thomas Brémond
Production designer: Flavia Marcon
Editor: Samuel Danési
Composer: Christophe Chassol
Sales: Gaumont

In French
90 minutes