By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
It is the peak of summer heat in Paris and tensions are rising high. A 3-man squad of police officers are on patrol on their beat; a slum predominantly inhabited by French citizens and recent immigrants of African descent. Officer Ruiz is new to the team, having moved to the city to be closer to his son after a recent divorce. His coworkers are Chris and Gwada, who have several years of experience working the neighborhood. The leader is Chris, nicknamed “The Pink Pig” by residents in the slum, a moniker that he owns perhaps a bit too much.
The neighborhood is run by “The Mayor”, a title that isn’t technically official, but his power and influence in the slum speaks for itself. When a Gypsy circus performer’s lion cub is stolen by a neighborhood boy and his friends, a fight nearly breaks out between The Mayor and the Gypsy leader “Zorro”. The police intervene and are able to calm the situation temporarily, but to prevent further violence have to promise that they will find the lion cub.
The police eventually discover that a local African Muslim boy named Issa stole the cub, and they set out to find Issa and his friends. Upon locating the young delinquents, the police fight with them verbally, and in a fit of rage one of the officers shoots Issa in the face with a less than lethal riot weapon, nearly killing him. The whole incident is caught on camera by a drone being controlled by another local boy named Buzz.
Never underestimate the power of nerds with remote controls.
Gwada and Chris panic and decide to focus their attention on getting the camera footage before it is leaked to the public and destroys their lives. Ruiz goes along with the scheme in protest, but their decisions lead from disaster to disaster and threaten to tear the roof off of the ghetto.
The film opens just as giant crowds gather for a major soccer game, showing the unity that can be found between all cultures and races when they have a mutual goal to strive for. Even something as ultimately unimportant as a sporting event can bridge the divides that are held between people. This is a very optimistic start that serves as a deliberately stark contrast to the reality of the daily lives of the characters that inhabit the Paris slums.
V.E. Day or Soccer Riot? Both?
Many parallels can be drawn between Les Miserables and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Both films are set in a working class community on one of the hottest days of the year in a major city. Both are ensemble films which follow multiple story threads over the course of a day, and both films deal with the way cultural, racial, and economic divides set a course for civil unrest in ways which are both inevitable and tragic. Director Ladj Ly has crafted a truly compelling vision of the Paris slums. The immigrant crisis has forced upon Europe a rapid demographic change that has been the cause of a great deal of tension. This film takes those tensions as a starting point and builds a narrative behind it that is surprisingly evenhanded. It even finds a way to be empathetic to the plight of the police officers who are responsible for some of the worst affronts. Les Miserables leaves it to the audience to decide for themselves how to feel about the film’s characters.
The film gets off to a very solid start and ends in an intensely dramatic finale, but during the middle act, the film suffers slightly from a lack of focus. The film follows four principle sets of characters; the police, the children of the slums, the criminal elements of the slums, and the Mayor and his people. As the story progresses and characters intersect with each other, it becomes somewhat difficult to understand the choices made by some characters. The film’s finale does clean up many of the questions posed by the middle act, but the motivations of some of the characters are still left somewhat muddled. This isn’t a fatal flaw, but it does keep the film from reaching the heights that it could have reached with a tighter script.
Organizing is the only way to move forward…
Les Miserables is an intense and sometimes surreal examination of cultural clashes, poverty, and the tyranny that can come when the wrong people are given police authority.
Les Miserables (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time the Pink Pig earns his name
Take a Drink: for police brutality
Take a Drink: for (not undeserved) brutality against police
Do a Shot: when you figure out the film’s relationship with the seemingly unrelated Victor Hugo novel